Cherry trees can be used in many different ways. Their wood makes for spectacular tables, jewelry boxes, and chests. Their bark has been important to indigenous peoples for its medicinal purposes for thousands of years. Obviously, their varied and delicious fruits can be used in all sorts of desserts, drinks, and sweets. Today let’s gain a better understanding of what different cherry tree varieties exist and how to best care for them.
Taxonomy of Cherry Trees
In terms of biological classification, cherry trees fall into a specific, easily identifiable category: a genus. All cherry trees are fruit trees and part of the genus Prunus. There are roughly 430 different species contained within this genus. They generally are native to northern temperate regions in North America, Europe, and Asia.
History of Cherry Trees
Cherry trees have a special cultural and diplomatic history in the United States. According to the National Park Service, “The beauty of the cherry blossom is a potent symbol equated with the evanescence of human life and epitomizes the transformation of Japanese culture throughout the ages.”
While some species of cherry tree are native to the US, the many thousands of trees located in Washington D.C. are not. In January 1910, the Tokyo government sent a shipment of two thousand flowering cherry trees to Washington D.C. as a sign of faith and goodwill. Unfortunately, these trees were bug-infested and destroyed less than a month later.
Two years later in February 1912, another shipment, this time of ~3,000 trees, was sent to D.C. About 1,000 of the trees were “Yoshino” cherry trees – traditional Japanese cherry blossoms. Roughly 20 rare “Gyoiko” were planted directly on the White House lawn. These many thousand cherry trees still stand in Washington D.C. today. The trees, culture, and history of the Japanese–American relationship are celebrated in the annual Cherry Blossom Festival in D.C. The festival typically takes place in early March but is dependent on local weather changes that affect the blossoming.
Cherry Tree Care
Like all plants, cherry trees have a specific care regime to keep them healthy. While different species differ slightly in their needs, let’s take a look at what most cherry trees will require.
- Location: Cherry trees grow well (species dependent) in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Hardiness Zones 4-7. This encompasses most of the center of the US. It excludes the northern parts of MT, MN, ME, etc, and the deeper parts of the south: FL, LA, MS, etc.
- Planting: Unlike some plants that gardeners may be used to, cherry trees have two planting seasons. They require relatively moist soil to take well, so plant them in either late fall or early spring (a select few are best planted in late spring). Young cherry trees can be deceptively small, but their canopies can eventually grow to be 20-30 feet wide! For this reason, if you’re going to plant multiple trees, make sure to space sweet cherries 35-40 feet apart. Plant tart cherries (smaller) 20-25 feet apart. Don’t plant them too far, though. The required spacing also allows for pollination between trees.
- Sunlight: Prunus generally require full sun. They should be planted in well-draining soil where they can receive 6+ hours of direct sunlight each day.
Types of Cherry Trees
Cherry Blossom – Prunus serrulata
- Distribution: This cherry tree is introduced and is primarily found in California and New York.
- Color, Leaves, Flowers, and Fruit: The bark of the cherry blossom tree (or Japanese Cherry tree) is a very distinguishable reddish-brown color. The dark green leaves are lanceolate to ovate, and they turn a nice golden or orange color before in the fall. This tree flowers in the spring with fragrant, showy, pink blossoms.
- Sunlight and Water Requirements: The cherry blossom tree requires a minimum of about 6 hours of direct sunlight a day. While these trees can be semi-drought tolerant after establishment, they do best with regular irrigation.
Sour Cherry Tree – Prunus cerasus
- Distribution: As an introduced species, the sour cherry tree can be found across most of the United States and up into British Columbia.
- Color, Leaves, Flowers, and Fruit: The dark green leaves of this species have serrated edges and have distinct, darkened glands at their bases. The sour cherry tree produces white flowers and dark red to black edible fruits that give the tree its name.
- Sunlight and Water Requirements: The sour cherry tree does best in full sunlight with well-drained but moist soil. This species grows best in cooler, humid climates.
Sweet Cherry Tree – Prunus avium
- Distribution: The sweet cherry tree has been introduced to much of the United States (with the exception of most of the west/midwest states) and up into parts of British Columbia.
- Color, Leaves, Flowers, and Fruit: The leaves of the sweet cherry tree are fairly similar to those of the sour cherry tree. The twigs, leaves, and seeds of this species are all slightly toxic while the ripened fruits are edible.
- Sunlight and Water Requirements: This species of cherry tree also requires essentially full sunlight and moist, well-drained soil.
Bing Cherry – Prunus avium “Bing”
- Distribution: The bing cherry tree can live in most states throughout the United States. It specifically should be grown in Hardiness Zones 5-8.
- Color, Leaves, Flowers, and Fruit: Bing cherry leaves are green and droopy with serrated edges. Like its close relative the sweet cherry tree, this species produces white flowers and edible fruits.
- Sunlight and Water Requirements: Like most cherry trees, this species requires full sunlight (about 6 hours of direct sunlight per day) and well-draining, moist soil.
Yoshino Cherry Tree – Prunus x yedoensis (Akebono)
- Distribution: This species of cherry tree is native to Japan and can now be found in many temperate, urban areas across the United States. In 1912, Japan gifted Washington D.C. with a few species of cherry tree; the blooming Yoshino trees are a spring-time tourist attraction for D.C.
- Color, Leaves, Flowers, and Fruit: The Yoshino cherry tree can grow up to be about 25 feet tall with a crown that can be 25 feet wide. This species was planted in many parks across the country due to the densely packed, pale pink flowers.
- Sunlight and Water Requirements: The Yoshino cherry tree requires full sunlight and very moist, well-draining soil.
Stella Cherry Tree – Prunus avium “Stella”
- Distribution: The Stella cherry tree grows in temperate areas across the United States. It requires at least 600 hours of temperatures below 45℉ during the winter for it to bud in the spring.
- Color, Leaves, Flowers, and Fruit: As one of the most popular sweet cherry cultivar, Stella cherry trees produce fragrant white flowers and heart-shaped, deep red fruits. This species is particularly popular for its fruit.
- Sunlight and Water Requirements: The Stella cherry tree requires full sunlight and plenty of water in well-draining soil.
Autumnalis Cherry Tree – Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’ (Higan cherry)
- Distribution: Like its relatives, the autumnalis cherry tree can grow in most temperate areas of the United States. This cultivar is particularly resistant to summer heat and winter chill.
- Color, Leaves, Flowers, and Fruit: Mainly grown as an ornamental tree, this species produces a full crown of showy, pink flowers. This species is great for producing shade as it grows to be about 30 feet tall and 30 feet wide. Higans are often mistaken for lapins cherry trees.
- Sunlight and Water Requirements: This cherry tree also does best in full sunlight with well-draining, loam soil.
Montmorency Cherry Tree – Prunus cerasus “Montmoren”
- Distribution: The Montmorency cherry tree is slightly more cold-tolerant than its relatives and can grow in Hardiness zones 4-7 which do not include the most southern states.
- Color, Leaves, Flowers, and Fruit: The Montmorency cherry tree produces white flowers. This species is made popular by its deliciously tart fruits. These red cherries are primarily used for cherry pies or preserves.
- Sunlight and Water Requirements: Like its relatives, this species requires at least 6 hours of direct sunlight and moist, well-draining soil.
Kwanzan Cherry – Prunus serrulata “Kwanzan“
- Distribution: The Kwanzan cherry tree can be planted across most of the United States excluding the north-central states.
- Color, Leaves, Flowers, and Fruit: The leaves of the Kwanzan tree are reddish-copper as they first emerge in the spring before turning a deep green. This cultivar of the cherry blossom tree is primarily grown for its showy, pink flowers. In fact, this cultivar does not even produce fruit!
- Sunlight and Water Requirements: Like its parent plant the cherry blossom, this cultivar requires at least 6 hours of direct sunlight a day as well as moist, well-draining soil. This tree is slightly drought-tolerant.
Takesimensis Cherry – Prunus takesimensis
- Distribution: Endemic to South Korea, introduced specimens of the takesimensis cherry tree are slightly less common than other relatives in the genus Prunus. This species can be found in parts of Washington D.C. and in certain arboretums across the country.
- Color, Leaves, Flowers, and Fruit: The takesimensis cherry tree can grow to a towering 65 feet. This species produces showy, white flowers that contribute to the spring-time cherry tree splendor in Washington D.C.
- Sunlight and Water Requirements: This species requires full sunlight. The takesimensis cherry tree is the most flood-tolerant of its genus; it is often planted in more wet, flood-prone areas.
Weeping Higan Cherry – Prunus Subhirtella var. Pendula
- Distribution: The weeping higan cherry tree can grow in USDA hardiness zones 5 to 8, meaning that it can grow in most temperate areas.
- Color, Leaves, Flowers, and Fruit: This species of cherry tree is known for its pendulous (weeping) branches and flowers. Growing up to 40 feet tall and wide, the weeping branches of this species grow bright pink flowers.
- Sunlight and Water Requirements: Like most other cherry trees, this species does best in direct sunlight and in moist, sandy or loam soils.
Sargent Cherry – Prunus sargentii
- Distribution: The sargent cherry tree grows best in USDA hardiness zones 4 to 7 meaning that it does not do well with too much heat (such as exists in the southern states).
- Color, Leaves, Flowers, and Fruit: This species of cherry tree is famous for its beauty all year round. In the spring, the leaves emerge with a purplish or bronze color, and the flowers are a showy pink. In the fall, the leaves turn red and orange before falling to reveal the lovely bark that is an almost purple color.
- Sunlight and Water Requirements: Like its relatives, this cherry tree requires a lot of direct sunlight and moist, well-draining soil.
Shirofugen Cherry – Prunus serulata “Shirofugen”
- Distribution: Introduced to the United States as an ornamental tree, the Shirofugen cherry tree does best in hardiness zones 5 to 9.
- Color, Leaves, Flowers, and Fruit: This species of cherry tree tends to grow up to 30 feet tall and wide. The growth habit is such that the crown is very flat and wide, causing the tree to have a sprawling nature. This popular tree produces pinkish to white flowers.
- Sunlight and Water Requirements: The Shirofugen cherry tree is typical for its genus in that it requires direct sunlight and moist, well-draining soil. They typically begin to fruit rather early around mid-season.
Okame Cherry – Prunus x “Okame”
- Distribution: A more heat-tolerant cherry tree, the Okame cherry tree does best in hardiness zones 6 to 8.
- Color, Leaves, Flowers, and Fruit: This species is another ornamental, showy tree that produces fragrant, dense flowers that are a nice rosy-pink. This tree grows up to be about 25 feet tall with a 20-foot spread.
- Sunlight and Water Requirements: This species tolerates a little bit of shade, however, it will produce the most blooms in direct sunlight. Like other cherry trees, it does best in moist, well-draining soil.
Chokecherry – Prunus virginiana
- Distribution: Chokecherry can essentially be found throughout its native range of North American and up into British Columbia.
- Color, Leaves, Flowers, and Fruit: Compared to its foreign relatives discussed in this article, the chokecherry is much less showy. This shrub/tree grows to be about 3 to 20 feet tall with small white flowers that grow as racemes. The fruits are edible however the seeds are toxic.
- Sunlight and Water Requirements: The chokecherry requires full sunlight as well as moist, well-draining soils.
All that is left to do is plant a tree! Cherry trees are typically cheap, ranging from $50-$200. The biggest hurdle is having to wait 4-5 years for them to begin fruiting. After that, you can enjoy their delicious cherries!