The cherry blossom (sakura) is Japan's unofficial national flower. Celebrated for centuries, it is esteemed as the most beautiful and important of flowers in the Japanese culture. In spring, during the blossom-viewing season called Hanami, flowering cherries are celebrated with huge festivals, parties and family picnics wherever the cherries grow.

The term “flowering cherry” refers to seven species of Prunus (Prunus campanulata, P. incisa, P. jamasakura, P. serrulata, P. sargentii, P. spachiana (syn. subhirtella), and P. speciosa) and their cultivars. According to the Flower Association of Japan, there are over three hundred species, varieties and hybrids of Japanese flowering cherries. These flowering cherries come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes and several are excellent additions to the garden. All are incredibly beautiful.

There are several characteristics differentiating the many cherry tree varieties. Some of the obvious ones which are of particular interest to gardeners are listed below.

Number of petals

Cherry blossoms have from 5 to more than 300 petals (!) They can be divided into 4 groups based on the number of their petals. Single flowers feature 5 petals and sometimes 1-3 extra petals. Semi-double flowers boast 10-20 petals while double flowers exhibit 25-50 petals. The impressive chrysanthemum flowers are packed with over 100 petals. In Japan, many people would consider these double or chrysanthemum flowers quite gaudy. Their most popular and acclaimed cherry blossom is the Yoshino (Prunus x yedoensis), which has five white petals and is treasured for its delicate, simple form.

The same cultivar may display single flowers with 5 petals on one specimen, but 15 petals per flower on another specimen. Soil fertility may have an impact on these variations as less petals tend to be produced in lean soils.

The petals may be oval, egg-shaped or round. They may be wrinkled, frilled or display wavy margins.

Single Flowers
Prunus x yedoensis 'Somei-Yoshino'

Semi-Double Flowers
Prunus 'Accolade'

Double Flowers
Prunus 'Kanzan'

Chrysanthemum Flowers
Prunus 'Asano'

Color of the blossoms

Most cherry flowers are light pink to white, but there are also cherry trees with dark pink, yellow or green blossoms. Appreciating the color of these lovely blooms is however not always easy because cherry blossoms change color over their life. Many are dark pink when in bud, lighter pink when they first blossom, and then eventually pale pink or white when fully open. Some cherries, such as 'Shirofugen', see their whole flower color change from white to pink, giving an entirely new look at the end of the flowering season.

White blossoms 
Prunus 'Shogetsu'
 Soft Pink blossoms 
Prunus x yedoensis 'Akebono'
 Deep Pink blossoms 
Prunus 'Kiku-shidare-zakura'

Fragrant blossoms

Many Japanese flowering cherries are fragrant and exude a pleasing scent of crushed almond. Prunus 'Amanogawa' is reported by some as having a freesia fragrance. However, in cold and rainy days, their fragrance is barely perceptible, except for strongly scented cherries such as 'Amanogawa' or 'Jo-nioi'. The Japanese word 'nioi' means fragrance and is often added to the cultivar name. 

Blooming Season

Most cherry tree varieties bloom in spring over a season that usually lasts several weeks. However, changes in weather conditions may have an impact on the time of flowering, advancing or delaying the appearance of the beloved cherry blossoms by several weeks. Generally, the milder the climate, the earlier the blossoms open.

Spring as a season can be short and last only 3 weeks, as in Japan. In moderate climate areas, such as Britain or the Netherlands, spring may last 6 weeks and even more.

The cherry blossom season is relatively short. There may be 2 or 3 weeks between the opening of the first blossom and the shedding of the petals. Generally, the double flowers last longer than the single ones. Strong wind and rain can reduce the blooming season even shorter.

Not all cherry trees bloom at the same time. There are early bloomers such as Prunus pendula 'Pendula Rosea' and Prunus x yedoensis (Yoshino cherry). They are followed by garden cherries, including the lovely Prunus 'Accolade', the deep pink Prunus pendula 'Pendula Rosea', and pure white Prunus 'Umineko'. Closing the spring season is the incredibly popular Prunus 'Kanzan' or Prunus 'Shogetsu'

Some Cherry tree varieties enjoy a particularly long blooming season and flower in flushes in the fall and during the winter months. Among them are Prunus subhirtella 'Autumnalis Rosea' (Rosebud Cherry) and Prunus subhirtella 'Autumnalis'.

Early Blooming Flowering Cherry 
Prunus incisa 'Kojo-No-Mai'
Mid-Season Flowering Cherry
Prunus 'Shirotae'
Late Blooming Flowering Cherry 
Prunus 'Pink Perfection'

Cherry Tree Leaves

Although ornamental cherry trees are typically planted for the majestic yet delicate beauty of their flowers, many varieties are noted for their lovely foliage and multi-season interest. Some display wonderful fall color, with their foliage warming up to brilliant shades of gold, red, or orange.

Usually, the foliage unfolds in the spring, either before the flowers, at the same time, or after the blossoms open. In case of early blooming cherry varieties, the new leaves appear only after the blossoms wanes, which creates a spectacular look with thousands of showy pink-white blossoms smothering the bare branches - a sight to behold. In case of later blooming cherry varieties, the leaves usually appear before the blossoms, giving the trees a very different look.

The color of the news leaves differs between cherry varieties. In most cases, the fresh leaves are green with a bronze hue. They generally mature to dark green and create a lovely summer canopy. Some cherry varieties display wonderful fall color, with their foliage warming up to brilliant shades of gold, red, or orange, before shedding to the ground.

Cherry Tree Shapes

Japanese flowering cherries enjoy graceful shapes that command attention and create beautiful features in winter. There are 5 types of tree shapes and habits:

Funnel shape becoming very broad
Prunus 'Ichiyo'

Weeping Shape
Prunus pendula

Umbrella shape with a broad and flattened crown
Prunus 'Shirofugen'

Fastigiate shape

Growing Flowering Cherries

Flowering cherry trees do well in most residential gardens because their care requirements are minimal. They are not demanding in regard to soil type or pH requirements, but should be watered thoroughly after planting and until the tree is well-established. Like all cherry trees, ornamental flowering cherries are susceptible to insect and fungal disease problems. Regular pruning to thin out branches and allow for better air and light circulation will help keep your tree healthy. The best time to prune is just after spring flowering. Many fungal diseases can be treated by application of a fungicide. Signs of disease include powdery mildew, hard knots or swelling on branches, leaf spot, and discolored or wilted leaves.

  • Performs best in full sun in moist, relatively fertile, well-drained soils.
  • Prune in midsummer if silver leaf is a problem
  • Watch for caterpillars, leaf-mining moths, bullfinches, silver leaf, bacterial canker and blossom wilt.
  • Propagate by budding or grafting, although softwood cuttings in early summer with bottom heat can be successful.