Prunus x incam 'Okame'
When you think of your favorite dazzling spring flowers, what comes to mind? Tulips? Azaleas? Lilacs? They’re gorgeous, to be sure, but if you really want a spectacular show in your garden, look to the sky instead of the earth—into the canopy of your very own ornamental cherry, plum or even apricot tree. From the genus Prunus, these fruit trees delight with amazing flower clusters, beautiful bark and intense fragrance.
You’re probably familiar with ‘Yoshino’ and ‘Kwanzan’ cherry trees and purple-leafed ‘Thundercloud’ plums, stunning standards made famous with mass plantings in cities like Washington, DC, and Tokyo. But the genus has much more to offer. If you have full sun and well-drained, reasonably fertile soil, you can choose from a wide variety of show-stopping Prunus to grow in your garden. And they don’t fizzle out come summer; they provide year-round enjoyment with interesting bark, colorful fruit and dramatic fall color.
If you want a jump on spring, plant ‘Okame’ (Prunus x incam, Zones 6 to 8). It’s one of the earliest flowering cherries. This hybrid offers the deep pink color of its subtropical parent (Prunus campanulata) plus the hardiness, stunning yellow, orange or red fall color of Fuji cherry (Prunus incisa). It’s a great fit for small landscapes because it rarely reaches taller or wider than 25 feet at maturity. ‘First Lady’ (Zones 6 to 8, possibly 9) is similar, but it has flowers that are deeper pink and foliage that is remarkably resistant to pests and diseases.
Left: Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana). Right: Ornamental cherry (Prunus 'First Lady'). Below: Ornamental Japanese apricot fruit.
Got summer heat? Consider Prunus campanulata, or Taiwan flowering cherry. It tolerates heat better than any other cherry, though it’s not as cold-hardy. It blooms even earlier than ‘Okame’ and can be grown in Zones 8 and 9. Its spectacular rose-carmine flowers have petals that don’t open flat like other cherries; instead, bell-shaped blossoms dangle gracefully from its branches.
Ornamental Japanese apricot (Prunus mume).
Looking for fragrance? The most spicily scented species in the genus is Japanese apricot, Prunus mume. Its flowers often start to appear in January in warm locations, and it can be in full bloom in late February or early March. The tree’s large flowers lack the long stem of flowering cherries, and they appear to huddle tightly against the branches as if to escape late-winter chills. Japanese apricots are hardy in Zones 6 to 9, and grow well in Zone 10 in parts of California. They reach 20 feet tall and wide and develop low, rounded crowns with age.
‘Peggy Clarke’, the cultivar most commonly found in nurseries, has large, deep pink, double flowers and a spicy, permeating clove scent that’s remindful of dianthus or rugosa rose. Its branches are stunning in an Asian-themed vase, and the flowers may last for a week or more if the branches are cut just as the flowers are opening.
Open flowers may shrivel if temperatures dip to 20°F or lower, but many of the flowers recover when higher temperatures return. Even if bitter cold kills open flowers, there are often enough unopened buds to create a performance later.
If pollinated, Japanese apricots will set fruit. The lovely, deliciously scented fruits appear in June or early July. While they’re beautiful and fragrant, they lack the flavor of true apricots and are slightly sweet and insipid. In Japan, they’re pickled and transformed into a daily staple, sour and salty umeboshi.
If you live in a cold region, plant Sargent flowering cherry (P. sargentii, Zones 4 to 7). It’s an asset to the landscape throughout the year with fragrant, clear-pink flowers; reddish emerging leaves; clean, green summer foliage; shiny, reddish-brown bark; and spectacular yellow, orange or red fall color. ‘Hokkaido Normandale’, sold under the trade name Spring Wonder, is widely available. It can grow up to 25 feet tall.
Native members of Prunus are adapted to some of the harshest climates in the country. American plum (P. americana, Zones 3 to 8) features white flowers that emerge before the leaves appear and release a strong, sweet fragrance. Its yellow-to-red fruits are smaller than commercial plums, but they’re packed with flavor. American plum is also remarkably drought-tolerant. With careful pruning to remove suckers, this species can be grown as a small tree to 20 feet, or you can allow it to grow as it wishes into a large shrub.
For an abundance of fruit, plant one of the many plums resulting from hybridization with the Asian plum, P. salicina, such as ‘Alderman’ or ‘Toka’ (often marketed under the trade name Bubblegum Plum). Closely related P. mexicana (Zones 6 through 8) grows well further south, coping well with the searing heat and drought of Texas summers. It’s truly a small tree, reaching 20 feet tall, and doesn’t sucker like P. americana.
Chokecherry (Prunus virginian, Zones 2 through 6) is another very adaptable native. It’s normally a large shrub bearing clusters of sweetly scented, tiny white flowers in May. Look for single-trunk selections to avoid suckering: ‘Schubert’, the first tree-form chokecherry, and ‘Canada Red’, a chance mutation of ‘Schubert’ but with better growth habit. Both grow to about 20 feet tall, and, because they have attractive purple summer foliage, they’re good alternatives to ‘Thundercloud’ plums. Shrubby types are more likely to produce fruit than tree types. Their shiny, astringent fruits make good jam and syrup.
Search out varieties of Prunus that will thrive in your climate, and you’ll be rewarded with many years of blossoms and beauty in your garden.
Western sand cherry (P. pumila var. besseyi, Zones 3 to 6) is a wonderful drought-tolerant shrub with attractive foliage, beautiful and fragrant white spring flowers and attractive fruits that can be used for jams and jellies. Pawnee Buttes, another Western sand cherry, has a low, spreading growth habit, making it an excellent ground cover. Its foliage turns mahogany purple in the fall before the leaves are shed.