Flowering cherries signal the arrival of spring with their outburst of soft, fluttery blossoms that appear when most other trees are just waking up from their winter sleep. They are mostly native to Asia and are an iconic feature of the Japanese countryside, where they are known as sakura.
Cherry blossom trees are grown for their ornamental qualities, not fruit. Some varieties of flowering cherry do produce fruit, though it is generally small, tart, and preferred by birds rather than humans.There are numerous, species, cultivars, and hybrids under the umbrella name of flowering cherries, but they all share a few common characteristics:
- They grow fast, but are short-lived. Flowering cherries are prone to a host of diseases that can shorten their lifespan, but even healthy trees rarely live for more than 20 years.
- They are medium-sized trees, usually growing no more than 15 or 30 feet in height, though some varieties may exceed this size. However, their growth habit varies widely among the different varieties - upright, spreading, and weeping forms are available.
- Their beauty is hard to match in spring, though some varieties also have bronze or purplish foliage during the growing season and spectacular colors in fall.
Planting and Cultivation
To prevent disease from curtailing the lifespan of your flowering cherry trees, give them the best possible chances by planting them in the right place and tending to their needs throughout the growing season.
Flowering cherries generally prefer full sun, but in blistering hot climates, planting them where they will receive shade in the late afternoon is a good idea. They will grow with a half day of sun or filtered light throughout the day, but flowering will be reduced.
These are not drought tolerant trees and regular irrigation is one key to helping them withstand disease. Watering them deeply once per week in summer is a good rule of thumb. On the flip side, they do not enjoy growing in heavy waterlogged soil, so plant them where drainage is good or build up a low, broad mound eight to 12 inches above the surrounding grade as a planting bed.
Flowering cherries respond well to rich, fertile soil, so it is a good idea to amend the planting area generously with compost at planting time. You can also add a thin layer of compost to the surface around their roots once a year in fall or sprinkle a balanced fertilizer, such as 10-10-10, over the root zone once each month from spring through late summer.
Cherries have a fairly dense growth habit and thinning them out once a year helps maintain a beautiful form and can also help to thwart the many fungal diseases that attack them by inducing greater air flow.
Prune out the branches that grow toward the center or toward other branches, aiming for evenly-spaced branches that radiate from the tree in a uniform pattern. Winter is the optimal time to prune flowering cherries.
Most flowering cherries will exhibit symptoms of some type of pest damage during the course of their lives. Tattered leaves, gummy sap on the twigs, scorched tips on young branches and fungus growing from the root crown are some of the common symptoms. In addition to giving the tree the best possible care, there are a few other tips that can help keep pests and disease in check:
- Make sure the trees are not planted below the soil level, as wet soil against the trunk is a vector for disease.
- Likewise, do not let mulch pile up against the trunk.
- Disinfect pruning equipment by dipping the cutting blades in a 10 percent bleach solution prior to and after working on each tree.
- Remove any dead or diseased wood as soon as it appears on the tree.
- Dispose of trimmings away from the tree and rake up and remove the leaves each fall.
Assessing exactly what type of pests or disease a cherry has is not always easy and a chemical treatment should only be used when it is clear that they are an appropriate treatment for the problem. Comparing the symptoms to pictures in books or taking a sample to your local garden center is a good start. Your local cooperative extension service office can also be a great source of information to identify diseases and recommend the appropriate course of action.
- Kwanzan cherries have fragrant rose-colored blossoms with many layers of petals in each one and is considered to be one of the more disease resistant varieties.
- Pendula higan cherries are a weeping variety with light pink flowers and tiny black fruits that birds love to devour.
- Yoshino akebono is cherry with an upright growth habit, a handsome rounded form, and light pink flowers.
- Brighter Blooms offers six different varieties of flowering cherry; they are pricey ranging from $50 to $100 plus shipping, but they are guaranteed to be 5 to 6 feet tall when shipped and several of their cherry trees received excellent reviews from customers.
- Nature Hills also gets stellar reviews on the seven different varieties of flowering cherry they offer and their prices are also in the $50 to $100 range, though the tree size is slightly smaller when shipped
- For a cheaper option, try Bay Laurel Nursery, which ships bare root flowering cherries - this means they are dormant and shipped without soil - for about $30 plus shipping; the only drawback is that these are only available in the winter months.
Trees of Beauty and Grace
Originally imported from the Orient, flowering cherries are prized for their unique mystique. One tip for bringing their beauty indoors is to cut a few branches about three feet in length just before the buds open and arrange them in a tall vase as a dining table centerpiece.