January 2003
Plant of the Month
Sargent Cherry
(Prunus sargentii)
zone: 4
by Nancy Rose

The sight of flowering cherry trees in bloom is a sure sign of spring in warmer parts of the country. Unfortunately, cold zone gardeners can’t grow most of the spectacular Asian cherry species such as Yoshino cherry (Prunus x yedoensis) – noted for its presence around the Tidal Basin in Washington D.C.- and the many cultivars of Japanese flowering cherry (Prunus serrulata) including the popular double-flowered ‘Kwanzan’. However, there is one Asian species – Sargent cherry (Prunus sargentii)- that is a possibility in zone 4, especially in warmer sections or microclimates within the area.

Sargent cherry may reach 50 feet or more in height in its native Japan, but here a height of 20-30 feet is more likely. Sargent cherry tends to have a broadly upright growth habit, widening somewhat with age. One of its notable ornamental features is the beautiful glossy, dark reddish-brown bark, prominently marked with horizontal lenticels.

Sargent cherry has attractive foliage from spring through fall. The leaves emerge in early May, bright green and often with a bronzy-pink tinge. Mature leaves are dark green, obovate, 3-4 inches long and 1 ½-2 ½ inches wide. The leaf margins are sharply serrated. Sargent cherry can develop excellent fall color in the bronze-orange-red range.

The early spring flowers of Sargent cherry provide a brief but spectacular show. This tree blooms in late April to early May, before or just as the leaves start to emerge. The single, soft pink flowers are borne in clusters of 2-6 flowers. An entire tree in bloom gives the impression of a pink cloud. The purplish-black fruits are small, ripen in mid-summer, and are usually quickly eaten by birds.

Plant Sargent cherry in full sun but preferably where it will have some shelter from the worst of winter conditions. Excellent soil drainage is a must for this species, since it is even more susceptible to damage or death from rootzone flooding than other cherries. On the plus side, Sargent cherry seems less susceptible to trunk borer damage than most other ornamental cherries. The foliage generally stays clean and disease free.

Hardiness among individual specimens is somewhat variable depending on the seed source. There is certainly room in the trade for some cold-hardy selections. At the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum our hardiest accessions have been several plants grown from seeds that were collected by a U.S. National Arboretum plant exploration team in the mountains of Japan. Relatively mild recent winters have allowed these plants to gain size and bloom well, especially last spring after our strange –10 minimum temperature winter. Several upright-columnar cultivars exist, including ‘Rancho’ and ‘Columnaris’; these cultivars are not known to be hardier than the species on average.

Nancy Rose
University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

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