Wild cherry trees are known as Yama Zakura while ornamental garden cultivars are known as Sato Zakura. The most common in Japan is Prunus x yedoensis, which is viewed as the original Sato Zakura. In the UK, blossom is seen as a sign of Spring, providing the feeling that you’ve beaten winter with the worst now behind you. In Japan, blossom’s fleeting nature is viewed to represent the transience of all things, especially life itself. This is celebrated with the custom hanami in which Japanese picnic under the blossom.
In the UK, cherry blossoms tend to Flower in April, although it is dependent on the location with cherry trees as far flung as the Orkneys and Scillys. Blossom is extremely fragile and heavy rain can destroy flowers, although frost can be deadly, leaving them vulnerable to disease. Interestingly, a tree’s blossom output is dependent on the conditions in Autumn. It is in this period that the tree transfers sugars from the its leaves to its stems, as to form buds over the winter. Many trees require periods of frost to break its dormancy and unseasonal weather can upset flowering times. This is particularly the case for non-native trees, which include many cherry trees.
Today, there are numerous cherry trees available to purchase including historical Japanese varieties and more recently developed cultivars, some originating from the UK. Newer varieties have sought to increase blossom output, as well as create stunning new colours and colour combinations. Also, important are the development of dwarf varieties that allow beautiful blossom in the smallest of spaces. Varieties differ in other ways such as weeping, whose branches and leaves droop downwards, evergreen, fragrant, columnar or fastigiate and early or late flowering.
Fascinatingly, cherry blossom can have between 5 and 300 petals and are divided into four groups: single (5), semi-double (5-10), double (25-50) and chrysanthemum (100+). Although, there can be variation in the number of petals even on the same tree. As a rule as the number of petals increase, the number of stamens decrease. A blossom’s colour is rarely constant and will get lighter with age, and can be affected by the weather. Sometimes, there can be two colours of petals on the same tree. This occurs when a cultivar is grafted onto another’s rootstock, which continues growing above.
In the UK, there are two native species – the Prunus avium and Prunus padus. Like all cherry trees, they can be identified with buds at the end of twigs and smooth bark with rough lines, known as lenticels, running round the tree. In spring, they both produce white flowers, the former in bunches, the latter in long spikes that branch off a central stalk.
Many Prunus are known by their original japanese names. Here are a few common phrases:
- beni – pink
- hana – flower
- kiku – chrysanthemum-flowered
- nioi – scented
- shidare – weeping
- yae – double-flowered
- Sakura or zakura – cherry
Others go by their scientific latin name, which is used to denote a plant’s variety. A variety is always put in lower case and italicised and will always have the same unique characteristics of the parent plant. Sometimes an x is placed before variety as in the case of Prunus x incam. This denotes it’s a hybrid. In many cases, the name is a combination of the two varieties that produced it and are not latin words. The example in question is a mix of the incisa and campanulata.
The genus of all cherry trees is Prunus, which means plum in latin. Genus is used to group plants together with similar characteristics. Not all Prunus are cherry trees as the group includes many more trees and shrubs including plums (quelle surprise), peaches, nectarines, apricots and almonds.
Separately, some trees go by their cultivar, which are put in single quotation marks and often capitalised. Cultivar simply means cultivated variety and refers to a tree selected for a specific characteristic. Unlike varieties cultivars can vary with different nurseries selling slightly different trees. Within nurseries, consistency is ensured through propagation via vegetative cuttings i.e. cloning. Now without further ado, here are some translations of their latin names.
- serrula or serrulata – little saw. This refers to the shape of its leaves.
- Pendula Rubra – hanging red. Self-explanatory.
- cerasifera – cherry fruit. This refers to the edible fruit, ripening from late-July to September.
- padus – thread. I presume this refers to the trees slender racemes.
- subhirtella – rough-beneath. This refers to the texture of its leaves.
- Autumnalis Rosea – autumn rose. This refers to the date of flowering and colour of flower.
Primrose Cherry Trees A-Z
Originating from Surrey in the 1950s, the accolade gets its name from the ceremony used to confer knighthood by the tapping of the flat side of a sword on the shoulder. A cross between the sargentii and x subhirtella, the tree produces pink semi-double flowers that fade to pale pink and produces great colour in Autumn. The accolade is one of the earliest flowering cherries in both meanings of the term, blooming at the beginning of April and flowering abundantly early in its life.
Prunus ‘Amanogawa’ ‘Lombardy Cherry’
Meaning ‘river of the sky’ or ‘milky way galaxy’, the amanogawa was introduced to Europe in 1916 by Ernest Wilson, a prolific plant collector. The cultivar dates back to at least 1886 as it is listed as planted along the Arakawa River, Tokyo. An offspring of the serrulata, the tree is notable for its upright form and fragrant semi-double shell-pink flowers. Hence its English name the ‘Lombardy Cherry’.
Prunus ‘Kiku-shidare-zakura’ ‘Cheal’s Weeping Cherry’
Known since at least the 19th century, this Japanese cultivar was introduced to Europe in 1915. Meaning ‘weeping chrysanthemum’, its blossom is sensational with hundreds of petals per flower all in brilliant pink. Densely clustered, the blousy profusion resembles a stick of candyfloss.
Prunus ‘Shizuka Cherry’ ‘Fragrant Cloud’
Originating from Japan, the shizuka is part of a special collection of cherries known as the Matsumae collection cultivated by Mr Matasochi Asari beginning in the 1960s. Located on Hokkaido, Matsumae was the ideal location for hybridisation with a climate akin to Western Europe. Asari was integral in maintaining the first park designed to display examples of cherry trees and raised a whopping 105 cultivars, of which many have still not been introduced to Europe. Due to his work, he has been given the honorary title Sakura Mori – protector of cherry trees.
Shizuka simply means ‘fragrant cloud’, hence its other name. The tree is upright with large clusters of bright white semi-double flowers that fade to pink. Fragrant, its leaves are first green before turning golden orange in autumn.
The shirofugen helps mark the end of the cherry blossom season, finally blooming in late May or early June. Its flowers begin large and white, before turning purple-red and scattering. Left unchecked, the tree will end up wider than it is high, forming a vase shape. The tree has been cultivated since at least the 16th century in Japan, where it is known as the Fugenzo, meaning the ‘Elephant of Fugen’. Fugen is a Buddhist saint, who is often represented as a white elephant with six tusks, the tusks representing overcoming the six senses and the elephant the power of Buddhism to overcome all obstacles. It was again brought over by Ernest Wilson, this time in 1916.
Prunus ‘Shogetsu Cherry’
Meaning ‘moonlight on the pine trees’, the shogetsu is absolutely breathtaking with its cascading clusters of pink-tinged white double flowers, which resemble ballerinas petticoats. Wider than it is tall, the tree is known by multiple names (Blushing Bride and Oku Miyako) due to misidentification. The tree even confused the preeminent cherry tree expert Collingwood “Cherry” Ingram.
Prunus ‘Tai-haku’ ‘Great White Cherry’
Well known from historical records and artwork, the tai-haku was once thought lost until discovered by chance in the a Sussex garden by none other than Collingwood Ingram and all modern examples descended from this single specimen. With Tai-Haku meaning ‘big white flowers, the tree lives up to its name with possibly the biggest flowers of any cultivar. The tree is distinctive for its flat top and is notably wider than tall.
Meaning ‘white-tailed sea-eagle’, the umineko is a cross between an Oshima and Fuji and was raised by Collingwood Ingram, an early authority on flowering cherries, in the 1920s. An almost identical cross, named ‘Snow Goose’ was created by Mr Doorenbos of the Netherlands. Resembling stalked umbels, the cultivar produces closely bunched single white flowers with pink stamens. The tree will produce a fiery display come autumn with a profusion of orange, red and purple.
Prunus cerasifera ‘Nigra’
Preferred by Monty Don to other cultivars, the nigra was commonly planted in Britain as a street tree in the post-war period and was first introduced in the early 20th century. The tree is distinctive for its small very dark leaves and will often produce juicy plums. Its single flowers are pale pink with deep pink buds and long stamens.
Prunus cerasifera ‘Pissardii’
Originally introduced to France from Persia by one M. Pissard back in 1880, the pissardi is absoutely stunning with pink buds opening to gorgeous white petals, contrasted with dark stems. The flowers are followed by red fruits in Autumn, which are great for making into jams.
Prunus incisa ‘Fuji Cherry’ ‘The Bride’
Commonly gifted as a wedding present, ‘The Bride’ possesses large single white flowers with bright red stamens. Profuse, the tree can produce huge blooms of blossom. As a Fuji cultivar, it is extremely hardy and versatile, flourishing in all but the harshest soils.
Prunus padus ‘Pandora’
Native to the UK, the padus is of great value to wildlife, providing an early source of nectar for pollinating insects and fruit for many birds and mammals. The Pandora is distinctive for pale pink single flowers and green leaves. Tall for an ornamental, the tree can reach 10 meters high.
Prunus pendula ‘Pendula Rubra’
A classic Japanese cherry, the rubra will produce cascades of carmine pink single flowers even before the emergence of its leaves. Weeping and very small, the tree is perfect small gardens, with a height and spread rarely beyond 4 metres.
Prunus sargentii ‘Sargent’s Cherry’
Native to Korea, Japan and the Russian island of Sakhalin, the sargentii gets its name from Charles Sargent, the former director of Boston’s Arnold Arboretum, who introduced the tree circa 1890. The tree is notable for its huge blooms of rosy pink flowers and is one of the first to colour up come Autumn, its leaves turning a stunning crimson.
Prunus serrula ‘Tibetan Cherry’
Sometimes referred to as the mahogany-barked cherry, this Prunus is distinctive for its beautiful coppery-brown bark. It was brought over to Britain in 1908, by British plant collector extraordinaire Ernest ‘Chinese’ Wilson, who introduced over 2,000 species, of which 60 bear his name. The plant produces small white flowers with long white yellow-topped stamens.
Prunus serrulata ‘Kanzan’
Meaning ‘near mountains’ or ‘mountain border’, the kanzan is the most widely-grown cherry tree cultivar in the UK, in part because it is both fast-growing and easy to grow. It is also beautiful with long stalked bunches of pink double flowers, contrasted with coppery bronze leaves. Left unchecked, the tree will grow wider than it is tall with long arching branches.
Prunus serrulata ‘Pink Perfection’
An offspring of the Kanzan, the pink perfection retains many of its qualities, but is suitable for small gardens. First raised in Britain, the pink perfection was first grown commercially in the 1930s and is distinctive for its dark pink buds opening to pale pink flowers, clustered in classic cherry blossom style.
Prunus serrulata ‘Royal Burgundy’
An offspring of the Prunus kanzan, this young cultivar was introduced in the 1990s and possesses the same large, dark pink double flowers but with attractive dark purple leaves. Interestingly, the leaves appear purple due to a high concentration of anthocyanin that masks chlorophyll. Anthocyanin is a pigment that primarily reflects red and purple light, but absorbs green light. Chlorophyll by contrast primarily reflects green light. Thus the kanzan’s leaves appears green, the Burgundy’s purple.
Prunus x incam ‘Okame’ ‘Okame Cherry’
A cross between the campanulatus and incisa, the tree was first hybridised by Collingwood Ingram in the 1940s. An early flowerer, the okame will produce a multitude of single pink blooms enclosed in carmine calyces, producing outstanding colour in the awakening landscape of March.
Prunus x persicoides ‘Spring Glow’
Developed at the start of the 20th century in Australia, the tree is distinctive for quaint five-petaled pink flowers. A good choice for those wishing to maintain colour in the summer months, its leaves turning an attractive copper red colour after flowering. Bizarrely the tree is often listed as a x persicoides, which would make it a cross between a peach and almond, but bears little resemblance to either.
Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’ ‘Rosebud Cherry’
This prunus really does bloom in autumn and continues to flower intermediately all the way to March with small semi-double rosy pink blossom. It’s name is extremely apt as even its leaves turn a deep red come fall. A hybrid of the Fuji and Japanese Weeping Cherry, the cultivar was first imported to Europe in 1904 and has been known since at least the 19th century. It’s old Japanese name is ‘Jagatsu-zakura’ meaning ‘October cherry’ and it’s Latin name subhirtella can be broken down to ‘sub’ beneath and ‘hirtus’ rough, referring to the rough underside of its leaves. Understated and elegant, the variety has the additional advantage of being longer lived than its ornamental cousins.
Prunus x yedoensis ‘Yoshino Cherry’ ‘Ivensii’
The yoshino is one of the most popular cherry trees in Japan and is grown all across the country. The oldest, located in Hirosaki Park, Hirosaki, was planted all the way back in 1882 and is overlooked by the stunning 17th century Hirosaki castle. Almond scented, the tree is a weeping variety with long slender branches, which produce cascades of small white flowers. It is a cross between the Oshima cherry and Prunus subhirtella ‘Rosea’.
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