Prunus is a large genus, containing many different types of fruit tree — cherry, plum, peach, almond and apricot — as well as good evergreen shrubs used for hedging or other amenity purposes. But it is the ornamental flowering cherries on which this article is concentrated.
Spring just would not be the same without the ornamental cherries and their pink or white blossom. The flowers drop all too soon but leave a beautiful carpet below and later autumn foliage colour provides another element to the garden.
Many of the ornamental cherries originate in Japan, where they have been cultivated for more than 1,000 years. For real enthusiasts it is worth considering a visit to Ueno Park in Tokyo or Satokuen Park in Seoul.
These Japanese cherries of garden origin tend to be small trees that are easy to grow. Many have young bronzed foliage — a lovely backdrop to the emerging blooms, which can be pink, white or cream. The foliage tends to turn yellow or tawny-orange in the autumn.
Some standout varieties include P. ‘Kanzan’ Award of Garden Merit (AGM), with young coppery/red foliage and large dark-pink flowers; white-flowered forms P. ‘Tai-haku’ AGM and P. ‘Shirotae’ AGM; and the long-lasting P. ‘Shirofugen’ AGM.
There are also hundreds of good species from our native trees the wild cherry (P. avium) and bird cherry (P. padus) to more choice specimens such as the black cherry plum (P. cerasifera ‘Nigra’ AGM) with its purple leaves and stems.
P. ‘Royal Burgundy’ AGM gives this variety a run for its money, with its wine-red foliage and double shell-pink flowers. Then there are a few with beautiful bark — the highly coveted P. serrula and P. maackii.
Prunus succeed in most well-drained soils, including chalk soils. They prefer it moist and fertile but do not fare well in waterlogged soil. Give them an open and preferably sunny position.
Bacterial canker is the most serious problem for them. Symptoms are dead, sunken patches on the bark, sometimes with a gummy ooze, and spots on the leaves. If infected, cut out all cankered areas, pruning back to healthy wood, and promptly apply a wound paint to protect against re-infection. Burn or landfill the prunings.
Chemical control is now limited. Try to prevent infection in the first place by restricting pruning to July and August, when tissues are most resistant. This also helps minimise the risk of infection by the fungus causing silver leaf disease, another problem for cherries and related Prunus species.
What the specialists say
Simon Scarth, Chew Valley Trees, Bristol
"The genus Prunus contains some of our most attractive and useful trees and shrubs, from the spring-flowering cherries to the fast-growing cherry laurel hedge and the wildlife-friendly blackthorn — also useful for delicious sloe gin.
And of course there are the fruiting cherries, plums and peaches. Overall, this is a superb genus for the garden.
"I conducted a staff poll and the following favourites were selected: ‘Accolade’ for the soft, shell-pink blossom; ‘Tai-haku’, the great white cherry, for those who are not so keen on pink; ‘Pissardii Nigra’, the purple-leaved plum, for dramatic leaf colour; and ‘Pandora’, which is the perfect flowering cherry for a small garden.
"Sadly, the cherries can be prone to bacterial canker. Silver leaf is another disease of Prunus, though the risk can be minimised by pruning in midsummer instead of winter. To get the best out of flowering cherries, we recommend planting in a sheltered site in full sun. They need a moist, fertile soil and won’t tolerate waterlogging."
Matthew Pottage, acting curator, RHS Garden Wisley, Surrey
"Flowering cherries are a must-have and at Wisley we have a wonderful collection of all shapes and sizes. One of my favourites for late winter is P. incisa ‘Praecox’, which flowers intermittently through the coldest months, doesn’t get too large and doesn’t suffer with canker too much.
"For a more compact performance I cherish the shrubby ‘Kojo no Mai’. On a larger scale I like the early and dark-flowered ‘Kursar’, followed by the tasteful white ‘Shirotae’ — we have an old tree on Seven Acres that is much loved by our visitors. For something a little more pink, ‘Accolade’ is super and spills out the front of the Wild Garden, while ‘Asagi’ is a little more understated with its greenish yellow flowers.
"We find cherries perform best with moist but free-draining soil that doesn’t sit waterlogged, which can trigger chlorosis. While I feel cherries perform best on a heavier soil, the sandy soils of Wisley are still manageable for them."
Species and varieties
P. ‘Accolade’ AGM (H6) is a lovely small tree with a rounded and spreading habit. It produces masses of semi-double, pale-pink flowers in spring and repeat flowers less profusely in winter. Good for streets, parks and gardens. Height: 6-8m.
P. avium is a highly attractive native woodland tree. Medium to large in size, with a broadly rounded form, it has white flowers in spring and foliage that turns red and gold in autumn. Height: 10-15m.
P. cerasifera ‘Nigra’ AGM (H6) (syn. P. ‘Pissardii Nigra’) is a small tree with a rounded form and purple leaves and stems. It produces pale-pink flowers in early spring that fade to white. Then the leaves take centre stage. Good for streets, verges and gardens because it reacts well to severe pruning. Height: 6-8m.
P. ‘Kanzan’ AGM (H6) is grown for its juvenile coppery red foliage, which also colours well in autumn, and masses of dark-pink spring flowers. It has a columnar crown when young but becomes more rounded when mature. Quite a vigorous tree that is good for parks. Height: 8-10m.
P. ‘Okamé’ is a small tree with a narrow, columnar habit and masses of rich pink flowers in late March/early April. Its foliage turns a lovely orange and red in autumn. Good for gardens and parks. Height: 3-6m.
P. ‘Pandora’ AGM (H6) is a small tree with a columnar habit. It has pale-pink flowers in March and early April, and its foliage turns bronze/red in the autumn. Height: 4-6m.
P. ‘Pink Perfection’ AGM (H6) is similar in form to ‘Kanzan’, though less vigorous. It has dark-pink buds that open to reveal pale- to dark-pink double flowers borne on long clusters. Height: 8m.
P. sargentii is a highly popular Japanese species. It is a small tree with a rounded habit and plenty of single pink flowers in March and April. Height: 8-12m.
P. ‘Shimidsu Sakura’ is a dainty tree that is nice when in bud as well as once the pink buds have opened to reveal large white flowers with fringed petals. It has a broad, rounded habit and is recommended as one of the best flowering cherries, suitable for verges, parks and gardens. Height: 3-4m.
P. ‘Shirofugen’ AGM (H6) is perhaps the best flowering cherry on the market. It has copper coloured juvenile foliage and large double white flowers tinged with pink. It becomes a spreading tree with a rounded crown but remains small. Prized for its late and long-lasting flowering period. Height: 8-10m.
P. ‘Shirotae’ AGM (H6) (syn. P. ‘Mount Fuji’) is a small, gently weeping variety with large single and semi-double pure-white flowers as well as has nice green-fringed foliage. Recommended for verges, parks and gardens. Height: 4-6m.
P. ‘Tai-haku’ AGM (H6), the great white cherry, has large single white flowers and copper juvenile foliage that turns yellowy/orange in autumn. A medium sized tree with a rounded habit. Height: 5-7m.
P. × subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’ is a small rounded tree with semi-double pink flowers from November through to March. Its foliage turns orangey/yellow in autumn. Suitable for streets, parks and gardens. Height: 6-8m.
Thank you to Floramedia, which supplied the images for this article from its photo library