The Exquisite Ornamental Cherry

The Exquisite Ornamental Cherry

Jeff Ball

The Ornamental cherry, Oriental cherry, or Japanese cherry are catchall labels for hundreds of cultivars of decorative nonfruiting cherry trees native to Japan. Highly prized for their fabulous display of flowers, these are the wonderful trees that explode into bloom in and around Washington, DC, in early spring-a show so spectacular it’s celebrated by the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival, which runs the last week in March and the first week in April, attracting more than 600,000 visitors (for details, see (

While many southeastern U.S. cities celebrate their spring cherry bloom with a festival, it is in Washington that the Japanese cherries tell an ever-evolving story. These trees are diplomatic icons that have served both the United States and Japan well for almost 100 years (see page 47). They also have served as a platform, political or otherwise, for a fair number of first ladies throughout the 20th century, starting in 1909 with Helen Helen Taft.

Most recently, Lady Bird Johnson in 1965 accepted another 3,800 trees from Japan. In 1981 first lady Nancy Reagan presented the Japanese ambassador with a clone of one of the original Yoshino trees given to the United States; the governor of Tokyo named it the President Reagan cherry tree. With that tree went 1,200 cuttings from original Yoshinos to further restore original stock still depleted after World War II.

Last November the Japanese government gave the U.S. 50 trees propagated from the 1,500-year-old ornamental tree known as “Usuzumi Zakura,” a National Natural Treasure of Japan. The trees were planted in and around Washington by the National Park Service.


There are now dozens of varieties of Japanese cherries around Washington, DC; about 200 cultivars are available from U.S. nurseries. Of 12 cultivars of the 3.020 original cherries donated in 1912, 1,800 were Yoshino cherry (Prunus x yedoensis) and 350 were Kwanzan cherry. Those two tough ornamentals still are among the most popular cherry trees sold.

By March 1999, 125 of the original Yoshino trees still remained, even though they were now about 30 years past their life expectancy of 40 to 50 years. Five hundred new trees have been propagated from those 125 to keep the original gene stock alive and available. Yoshino cherries can grow in Zones 6 through 8, though with some protection they can handle the warmer side of Zone 5.

The Yoshino cherry can grow 40 to 50 feet tall and wide but usually is smaller. Most have a rounded, spreading growth habit; some cultivars have weeping forms. Showy flowers are white to pink, single or double, and slightly fragrant, having a mild almond smell. The blossoms appear before the leaves and last for only a few days. Bloom time is difficult to predict (the flowers have been known to peak before Washington’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival), and the flowers can be damaged by late frosts or very windy conditions. The dark green leaves turn yellowish in the fall.

A Yoshino cherry is propagated by grafting a cutting onto another cherry trunk or by rooting small cuttings. A swollen “knot” approximately 4 feet from ground level likely indicates a grafted tree. Because lower cherry rootstock can send up sprouts that do not resemble the Yoshino, it is best to buy trees that have been produced by rooted cuttings.

To find the largest number of Yoshino trees in one spot in this country, you need to head south for Macon, Georgia’s Cherry Blossom Festival. The March event features more than 224,000 Yoshino cherries in breathtaking bloom (

The name ‘Kwanzan’ comes from the Chinese character that represents a sacred mountaln, and the ‘Kwanzan’ variety of Prunus serrulata is one of the showiest Japanese cherries with clusters of large, deep pink double blossoms up to 2 1/2 inches long, each with 30 petals. Unlike other ornamental cherries, the Kwanzan cherry’s coppery leaves begin to grow while the tree is still in bloom, and the pink flowers contrast nicely with the green-bronze spring foliage. Although they are not fragrant like Yoshino trees, Kwanzans make up for it in longevity, with blossoms that last longer than most other flowering cherries. The Kwanzan has a glossy bark; an upright spreading form, 30 feet tall and 20 feet wide; and grows happily in Zones 5 through 8. Fall color is an attractive orange-bronze.

This particular cherry is available in two distinct forms: grafted trees and those grown on their own roots. Grafted trees are very uniform in size and shape. Specimens grown on their own roots have a more interesting form and reach up to 40 feet in height.

Unfortunately, the Kwanzan cherry is short-lived, lasting only 15 to 25 years. The tree may produce small, inconspicuous fruits enjoyed by birds.


Ornamental cherries are standouts in any home landscape. They are mainly used as lawn specimens, in groupings, as a small shade tree near a deck or patio, or as a street tree, if irrigation is available. Remember that the crown spread can reach more than 25 feet; leave plenty of room between the young tree and the house or other plants.

Japanese cherries also look handsome in rows along property boundaries. On particularly spacious properties they can be grouped, in threes, as a focal point. Add flowering azaleas, rhododendrons, and dogwood nearby for a wonderful color combination.

For early season blooms, cut cherry blossom stems early in the day, choosing ones whose blossoms are not fully opened. Using sharp pruners, cut the stems cleanly where they meet larger branches. Plunge the branches into warm water immediately and allow them to take up water for an hour or two. The blossoms will last for two or three days before their petals begin to drop.


These flowering trees really prefer full sun but will tolerate some light shade. They are not terribly fussy about soil as long as it is reasonably fertile, well drained, and not too acid (pH 6.0 to 7.5). The best time to plant 5- to 10-foot-tall nursery stock is in the fall. Trees growing in lawn turf should be mulched out to the drip line (the ends of the branches) if possible because grass is a fierce competitor for both nutrients and water. A 3-to 4-inch layer of organic material is ideal and also will help protect the thin bark from mowers and string trimmers.

Oriental cherries need feeding only once a year. In the fall, sprinkle a slow-acting granular general-purpose fertilizer on the soil under each tree out to 1 1/2 times the distance from the trunk to the drip line. Use a pound of fertilizer for each inch diameter at the trunk’s base. While a single yearly feeding is more than adequate, some serious gardeners spray oriental cherry tree foliage with a dilute liquid fertilizer, seaweed extract, or fish emulsion two or three times during the growing season to boost vigor. Beneficial but not essential.


Ornamental cherry trees, like most plants, have few insect or disease problems if they are planted in the right place, cared for properly, and live with little or no stress. If the tree has too much shade, lacks sufficient water, or suffers some other form of stress, problems can occur. Cherries can be susceptible to borers that eat holes through trunks and branches. Sudden signs of dieback could mean the tree is harboring borers; consult a tree-care professional.

To combat another common pest, tent caterpillars, use a forked branch to wind up the webs and expose the caterpillars to predators. Even if the tent caterpillars consume lots of foliage, they will not cause permanent damage. New leaves will appear after the pests disappear in May.

And then there are beavers, in the spring of 1999, Washington’s Tidal Basin cherries faced a new and rather unusual threat: An errant beaver family chewed down several trees and severely damaged others. Fortunately, this situation did not require an act of Congress to decide what needed to be done. These furry critters were captured with humans traps by members of the National Park Service and taken where the trees were not so famous.


Much work has been done in the past 20 years to develop ornamental cherries with more disease- and insect-resistance, and in some cases to move the Zone envelope a bit.

As we enter further into the new millennium, breeders will continue to develop new cultivars such as “Dream Catcher.” Developed at the National Arboretum for its early spring bloom and its tolerance to insects and disease, the Zone 6- to 8-tolerant Dream Catcher has a pretty good public relations program as well, picking up the cherry trees’ tradition of aligning themselves with a first lady. One of the first Dream Catcher trees planted in Washington was put in place by then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in December 1999 during a ceremony on the Washington Mall.

As Washington settles into a new administration–and a new first lady-we’ll expect Laura Bush to continue that tradition. She has at least four years to become part of Washington’s ongoing love affair with its flowering cherries.

Jeff Ball appears on NBC’S “Today Show” as a gardening expert and writes online for

COPYRIGHT 2001 American Forests

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