Few trees can beat flowering cherries for their beauty, especially in early spring. That's when a froth of pink or white blooms cloaks their branches, scenting the air around them with a delicate fragrance.
But there's more to flowering cherries than their blooms. These trees now come in more shapes and sizes than any other spring-blooming trees ― and fall color on a few kinds is sensational. For all these attributes, we have Japanese horticulturists to thank: Over the centuries, they've developed an exquisite range of single- and double-flowered varieties in pink, white, and bicolors. They've given us columnar and weeping forms, spreading varieties, and ones that bloom early and late.
For gardeners, this is great news. You can buy container-grown or bare-root cherry trees, plant them this month, and the first blooms will appear in two to four months. A sampling of varieties is listed below. All take full sun and regular water, and they grow everywhere but the coldest-winter and hottest-summer climates. They're also good to garden around: Pink-flowered forms are especially pretty when surrounded by pink tulips and blue forget-me-nots.
How to keep a good cherry down
If your garden is small but you don't want a weeping cherry, try 'Hally Jolivette'. It grows 10 to 15 feet tall and bears white double flowers over a long season. Or shop for familiar cherry varieties grown on a dwarfing rootstock called Gisela. The most widely used rootstock in the series, Gisela 5, reduces the mature size of the trees by 30 percent or more and induces earlier, heavier bloom. It's available on Prunus serrulata 'Kwanzan', P. s. 'Shirofugen', P. s. 'Shirotae' ('Mt. Fuji'), P. s. 'Shogetsu', P. x yedoensis, and P. x y. 'Akebono'.
Cherries grown on Gisela rootstock ― so labeled in nurseries and garden centers ― are most widely available in the Northwest but are becoming easier to find elsewhere. You can order flowering cherries on Gisela rootstock from Raintree Nursery ( www.raintreenursery.com or 360/496-6400).
Planting and care
Soil. It should be fast draining, granular, and lean. In heavy soil, cherries are subject to root rot, often indicated when new leaves suddenly collapse. Mix plenty of compost into the soil, or grow the trees in raised beds.
Exposure. Full sun.
Water. Moderate irrigation.
Feeding. Fertilize young trees once at flowering time and again in early summer.
Pruning. In winter, prune just enough to remove awkward or crossing branches. During the growing season, pinch back unruly shoots to force branching.
Underplanting. Because their roots run deep in good soil, cherries are fine trees to underplant with perennials or spring-flowering bulbs.
Plant for impact. Cherries are especially effective in front of evergreen conifers, which make the mass of flowers stand out like luminous clouds. Or plant by water, which reflects-and catches-delicate petals.
Arranging. Following proper pruning procedures (see above), cut branches when buds first show color or have just opened. Then place in water, stripping off buds or leaves below waterline.
These trees can be used to line a driveway or arch over a perennial bed that needs partial shade.
• Prunus 'Accolade'. Blush pink, 1 1/2-inch-wide semidouble flowers appear in large clusters. Fast growing but to only about 25 feet tall and wide. Growth habit is twiggy and spreading. Early. Sunset climate zones 2-9, 14-17.
• P. serrulata 'Kwanzan'. Deep pink double flowers. Grows 30 feet tall, 20 feet wide; branches are stiffly upright. Midseason. Zones 3-7, 14-20.
• P. s. 'Shirofugen'. Pink double flowers fade to white and appear at the same time as coppery red new leaves. Fast growing to 25 feet tall and wide. Late. Zones 3-7, 14-20.
• P. x yedoensis (Yoshino cherry). This is the variety of the famous trees planted around the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. Large, pinkish white single flowers. Grows 40 feet tall, 30 feet wide; branches form a graceful, open pattern. Early. Zones 3-7, 14-20.
• P. x y. 'Akebono' (often sold as 'Daybreak'). Large, pink single flowers. Grows 25 feet tall and wide. Early. Zones 3-7, 14-20.
Naturally much smaller than most other cherries, these top out at 10 to 15 feet. All make good focal points, but because they call attention to themselves, one per garden is usually enough.
• P. serrulata 'Snow Fountains'. A prolific bloomer with white single flowers, weeping branches, and a slightly curving trunk. 12-15 feet tall. Early. Zones 3-7, 14-20.
• P. x subhirtella 'Pendula'. Graceful branches hang almost to the ground and are cloaked with pale pink single flowers. Widely sold P. x s. 'Pendula Rosea Plena' has deeper pink semidouble blossoms. Both are typically sold at 5-6 feet tall and grow to 10-12 feet tall. Early. Zones 2-7, 14-20.
• P. x s. 'Yae-shidare-higan'. Rose pink double blooms. Growth habit similar to P. x s. 'Pendula'. Midseason. Zones 2-7, 14-20.
• P. x yedoensis 'Shidare-yoshino'. A weeping form of Yoshino cherry. Unlike most other weepers, this one gets big: Expect fast growth to 40 feet but few problems. Early. Zones 3-7, 14-20.
Rare among trees, these varieties grow much wider than tall. If you'll need to mow under yours, make sure it's relatively high branching. That's mostly a matter of training: As the tree grows, prune off the lowest branches until those that remain are high enough to walk under. This process is easy if you buy a tree with a strong leader (central stem).
• P. serrulata 'Shirotae' ('Mt. Fuji'). Grows like an inverted umbrella. Fragrant, white semidouble flowers emerge from pink buds, age to purplish pink. In fall, leaves turn yellow and red-orange. Grows 20 feet tall, 25 feet wide. Early. Zones 2-7, 14-20.
• P. s. 'Shogetsu'. Pale pink semidouble to double flowers, often with white centers. Grows 15 feet tall, spreads to 25 feet wide; strong horizontal branching. Late. Zones 3-7, 14-20.
These kinds grow well in narrow spaces and can serve equally well as single specimens (think of them as exclamation marks) or in rows that delineate allées, driveways, or paths. They tend to open up a bit with age but still retain their general columnar outlines.
• P. sargentii 'Columnaris'. Blush pink single flowers. Tree grows moderately fast to about 35 feet tall and 15 feet wide; it's more vase shaped than truly columnar. Fall color is red-orange. Midseason. Zones 2-7, 14-17.
• P. sargentii 'Rancho'. Grows about 25 feet tall, 10 feet wide ― roughly midway between 'Columnaris' and 'Amanogawa' in size but with deeper pink flowers than either. Midseason. Zones 2-7, 14-17.
• P. serrulata 'Amanogawa'. The Japanese word for Milky Way, the name must surely have been inspired by the tree's galaxy of rose-edged, light pink semidouble flowers, especially when viewed against the open sky. Grows 20-25 feet tall, 4-8 feet wide. Early to midseason. Zones 3-7, 14-20.
From first open bud to last petal, cherry trees bloom for three weeks.