Along with magnolia trees, ornamental or flowering cherry trees provide dynamic blossom displays in very late winter to mid-spring. Ornamental cherries are closely related to sweet and tart cherries, which reliably produce large, edible fruit. Ornamental types tend to produce more magnificent and profuse blossoms and don't yield fruit later in summer. The flowering cherry species and cultivars available for gardeners provide a wide array of tree sizes, flower colors and bloom periods.
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Made famous by their presence around the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., the yoshino cherry (Prunus x yedoensis) blooms in early spring. The flower buds are pink, but the blossoms open and age very pale pink to pure white. With origins in Japan, yoshino cherry trees potentially grow 40 to 50 feet tall and equally wide there, but cultivars tend to reach only 20 feet tall and 25 feet wide when mature. Three cultivars of note include Akebono, Shidare Yoshino and Snow Fountains. Grow yoshino cherry trees in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 5 through 8.
Also native to Japan is the Higan cherry (Prunus subhirtella). Michael Dirr, American woody plant expert from the University of Georgia, remarks that this species tolerates hard clay soils and summer heat better than other flowering cherries. It's also among the longest lived. Maturing 20 to 40 feet tall and 15 to 35 feet wide, Higan cherry trees bear light pink flowers in early spring. In fall, the foliage turns a reliable yellow. Grow Higan cherry in USDA zones 4b through 9a. Three cultivars of this species include Autumnalis, Pendula and Pendula Plena Rosea. Autumnalis blooms in both spring and fall while the latter two cultivars produce weeping branch canopies.
Japanese Flowering Cherry
Perhaps the most picturesque-formed and heavily flowering of the ornamental cherry trees is the Japanese flowering or Oriental cherry (Prunus serrulata). Dirr notes that numerous plant viruses and diseases cause many cultivars of this species to live only about 15 years. Healthy plants mature upward of 20 to 35 feet tall and 15 to 25 feet wide with rounded or vase-shaped canopies. The flowers occur in midspring, ranging from pink to white, depending on cultivar. Blossoms may be single-formed, with only five petals, or double, with extra petal rows to make frilly and pompon-like flowers. Kwanzan/Kanzan/Sekiyama, Mt. Fuji/Shirotae, Shirofugen, and Amanogawa are four cultivars of Japanese flowering cherry widely found in nurseries and gardens in the United States. Grow them in USDA zones 5 though 8.
Like the Higan cherry, the Sargent cherry (Prunus sargentii) is a long-lived tree but blooms a couple weeks earlier. It produces its pink blossoms at the same time daffodils grace the garden. Maturing 20 to 30 feet tall and equally wide, Higan cherry grows in a wide array of moist, well-drained soil types. This species is best for USDA zones 4b through 7. Columnaris grows with a more narrow canopy that resembles a vase rather than a column. Dirr mentions that the cultivar Accolade produces double flowers, but is the result of a hybrid cross between the Sargent and Higan cherries.
Across USDA zones 5 through 8, the Okame cherry (Prunus 'Okame') is the first flowering cherry to bloom in late winter or early spring. The pink buds densely line the branches and open to lavender-pink flowers, often nipped by late frosts. The Okame cherry tolerates clay soils and summer heat well. It eventually matures 20 to 30 feet tall and equally wide with an upright oval silhouette. One of this hybrid tree's parents is the Taiwan or bell-flowered cherry (Cerasus campanulata), which blooms in mid to late winter in USDA zones 7 through 9.