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Flowering cherries: Consider varieties that hold up well in our county

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By Al Hight, Brunswick County Extension

When most people think about flowering cherries for the landscape, their thoughts go directly to Washington, D.C.’s tidal basin and the Yoshino cherries that herald spring each year.
This generous gift from the Japanese government back in the early part of the 20th century makes a spectacular, if short-lived, show, but Yoshino isn’t the easiest plant to grow in our conditions. If you must have flowering cherries, consider several others that tend to hold up better in the heat and humidity of southeastern North Carolina.
Okame is a hybrid flowering cherry with lavender-pink flowers in February and March. Its hybrid vigor allows it to withstand adverse conditions pretty well, although it’s not in the same toughness category as plants like wax myrtle and ligustrum.
Typically reaching 20-25 feet with a spread of about half of the height, Okame fits well in smaller landscapes.
A sister plant of Okame that was selected at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., was named Dreamcatcher. The form and foliage are similar to Okame, but the flowers are more of a true pink and arrive a week to 10 days later. Dreamcatcher was released to the nursery trade in 1999, but it isn’t as readily available in retail nurseries just yet.
Snow Goose is a tough, white-flowered form of similar size and habit to Okame. I’ve grown it in eastern North Carolina for the last 20 years and have always been impressed with its performance. Expect blooms in mid-March in this part of the world.
One of my favorite flowering cherries is Autumnalis. As the name implies, you’ll have white to light-pink blooms in autumn and throughout the winter and early spring. Obviously, it won’t be covered in blooms at one time, but it does provide an extended flower show. Its habit is a little more wide-spreading than the others we’ve mentioned—more like Yoshino. It’s also not quite as tolerant of adverse growing conditions, so give it some room and good soil. Autumnalis is relatively easy to find in retail nurseries.
Speaking of soil and growing conditions, all of these flowering cherries need lots of sun and good drainage. Cherries and other plants in the Prunus genus are unique in that roots that are waterlogged produce cyanide. Any cherry in a poorly drained site will eventually die a quick and unpleasant death.
Soil that has been amended with organic matter and pumped up with a little extra fertility will give better performance. Unlike acid-loving plants like camellias and azaleas, flowering cherries like soil pHs around 6.5, about like you’d grow vegetables and flowering annuals.
This isn’t an indictment of the two most popular flowering cherries, Yoshino and Kwanzan, but with the exception of Autumnalis, these won’t tax your horticultural skills nearly as much. And since they don’t develop the extremely wide canopies, they won’t take up as much garden space.

Al Hight is the county extension director and horticulturist with the Brunswick County Cooperative Extension Service. Call 253-2610 or e-mail al_hight@ncsu.edu.