Ornamental Cherries at Willowwood

Green Cherry Blossom, Mary Fettes

One of the most popular springtime displays at Willowwood is the flowering of the Asian ornamental cherries. These trees cover themselves with blossoms ranging from pink to white, beginning in early April and continuing into May. Cherries are in the botanical genus Prunus and are tough, easy-to-grow plants that are not fussy about soils and require little care once established. Although their flowers are short-lived, they are some of the most spectacular flowering trees.

The Tubbs Brothers and Ben Blackburn were fond of spring-flowering plants and planted many ornamental cherries in the arboretum. Among these were the Yoshino Cherry, which is among the first to bloom and covers itself with pale pinkish-white flowers, the Higan Cherry, which bears so many pink blossoms that the tree resembles a strawberry parfait from afar, the Sargent Cherry, which has an upright habit and pale pink flowers, and the traditional Japanese Flowering Cherry, which blooms after the others and has large pink, pendulous, double flowers. One of Willowwood’s most unusual cherries is Prunus serrulata ‘Asagi’. Each spring visitors marvel at its curious apple-green flowers.

Cherries are short-lived trees and, unfortunately, many of the original Willowwood specimens are in poor health due to their age. Several years ago the Horticulture Staff began preserving these older specimens by propagating new plants from cuttings. As a result, two young saplings of Prunus ‘Tai Haku’ (large single white flowers) were planted in Hacklebarney Field. They were propagated from the old plant behind the Rosarie. This project will continue by planting young saplings of Prunus ‘Shirofugen’ (double white flowers that fade to pink) and Prunus incisa ‘Plena’ (double deep pink flowers).

In addition to preserving old cultivars, the Horticulture Staff is also working to display some of the newer introductions. Recent additions to our collection include Prunus ‘Dream Catcher’ which displays large, medium pink flowers in early April. ‘Dream Catcher’ was introduced by the U.S. National Arboretum in 1999 and is insect and disease resistant, easy to propagate, and grows rapidly. Also added was Prunus ‘Rosy Cloud’ which has double pink flowers and an upright habit, and Prunus ‘Shirotae’ which has double, pure white flowers and a spreading habit.

The goal of the Willowwood cherry collection is to display the best varieties suitable for cultivation in north-central New Jersey. Although only about five ornamental cherry cultivars are sold in local nurseries, there are many outstanding varieties that are worth growing. The Horticulture Staff is working to identity and preserve the ones we have and are evaluating and acquiring others for Willowwood’s Collection.