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Cherry picking

27 May 2022
9. trees in bloom 'kanzan'

Grown for eating or admiring, cherries promise year-round appeal – if you choose your variety wisely. Words and Photos Gillian Vine

Cherry lovers are carrying on a long tradition, as fruit stones dating from more than 5000 years ago have been found from Turkey to Portugal, and Japanese blossom festivals have been around for centuries.

One of the snags to cultivation was that cherries don’t self-pollinate, so grafting is generally the only way to propagate them. The exception is the sour Morello cherry (Prunus cerasus).

The Romans had the hang of grafting but when their empire fell apart some 1600 years ago, cherry culture died too, and it wasn’t until about the 16th century that cherries were again cultivated in Europe.
Trees were imported into New Zealand from Australia from the 1840s and commercial crops first trialled in Central Otago some 20 years later.

Modern breeding has resulted in bigger fruit that is less prone to splitting in rain and has a longer overall season. Mostly importantly for the home gardener has been the development of self-fertile varieties such as semi-dwarf ‘Compact Stella’, ‘Stella’, ‘Sweetheart’, ‘Lapins’ and its Central Otago mutation, ‘Sweet Valentine’. Here are my recommendations for the best to grow for fruit or for seasonal colour.

Cherries to chomp

The first consideration for homegrown cherries to eat is whether your climate is suitable, as at least 600 hours of temperatures below 5°C (winter chilling) is needed or they will not fruit. Add hot, dry weather leading up to harvest and you’ll appreciate why Central Otago, Marlborough and Hawke’s Bay are the
preferred areas for cherry growing.

Don’t despair, though. I have grown a heavy-cropping ‘Rainier’ (a blushing, cream-fleshed variety that rivals my Top Choice, ‘Compact Stella’) in Dunedin, and parts of Canterbury also lend themselves well to cherries.

They will grow in almost any soil, as long as it is well-drained. Add lime to lift the pH to around 7 and keep well-watered in summer. Planting espalier-style against a wall makes it easier to protect the crop from birds and cover the trees in wet weather, and it also saves space. Little pruning will be needed and is
usually done in autumn. Ensure you can tell leaf and flower buds apart so potential fruit is not chopped. On all cherries, flower buds are chubby clusters, while leaf buds are slender and individual.

‘Compact Stella’ wins best edible cherry because it is self-fertile, smaller in size than ‘Rainier’ (at 3–4m), needs less winter chilling and is a heavy cropper.

Spring beauty

In a recent English study of spring flowering trees, cherries took three of the top 10 slots. I have no quarrel with the writer’s choice of the Higan cherry (Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’), which will flower here two or three times a year, although the New Zealand-bred ‘Southern Gem’ variety is better – it has soft pink semi-double flowers and golden-yellow autumn foliage that darkens almost to purple.
The bark shines in winter. Pure white double P. glandulosa ‘Alba Plena’ was an understandable inclusion; however, for a big (6m+) specimen tree in the middle of a lawn, I’d opt instead for P. ‘Shirotae’, although
the flowers are semi-double.

Forget P. mume ‘Beni-chidori’, which was number eight on the English list. New Zealand-bred ‘Felix Jury’ leaves it in the dust for its clusters of deep, rosered single blooms from late winter, a nod to its P. campanulata heritage. Most other flowering cherries have rosy buds that unfold pale pink and sometimes fade to white, as with ‘Shimidsu Sakura’.

In pinks, the Japanese cherry P. serrulata ‘Kanzan’ is popular and runs my Top Choice of ‘Ukon’ a close
second for its fully double, rose-pink flowers. If space is tight, try small (3m) weeping ‘Kiku-shidare Sakura’. But, if you have room for it, an avenue of tall (7m), upright ‘Amanogawa’ would look stunning, as would an ‘Accolade’ specimen, a bigger variety (8m), long popular for its semi-double blooms and edible fruit.

Autumn glory (& winter ‘wow’)

Relatively few flowering cherries, among them ‘Shimidsu Sakura’ and ‘Pink Perfection’, keep their good looks throughout summer without the foliage becoming blotchy and unappealing. Every single one lights up the garden in autumn, though, as the leaves turn vivid gold, red or, with ‘Southern Gem’, almost purple. Edible cherries have the same autumn attribute but tend to be less flamboyant.

The foliage of ‘Amanogawa’, ‘Pink Perfection’ and ‘Shirotae’ is orange-red in autumn; ‘Accolade’ is orange; and ‘Kanzan’ orange with bronze touches. The Yoshino cherry (Prunus × yedoensis) – best-known for featuring in the spring cherry festival in Washington DC – has lovely autumn colour of red and gold, too.

As well as excellent autumn colour, the Yoshino cherry has attractive spring flowers of the palest pink. Just as there will be more flowers in spring, autumn colour is better if the cherry gets lots of sun and good air circulation.

Two to shun

Rum cherry (P. serotina) and Taiwan cherry (P. campanulata) should not be grown. The first is on the NPPA list of plants that must not be propagated or sold, while the second species is a prohibited tree in some parts of New Zealand. Rum cherry, known as American black cherry or mountain cherry, is a medium-sized (15m) deciduous tree whose fragrant white flowers are followed by edible black fruit. The foliage is poisonous to livestock.

The Taiwanese native, brought to New Zealand in the 1960s as an ornamental plant, was popular with
gardeners because the single bright pink flowers attracted tūī. Some varieties, notably ‘Felix Jury’, are
acceptable P. campanulata cultivars.

Barking up the right tree

Cherries with interesting bark come into their own when the leaves fall. The Fuji cherry (P. incisa) is a small Japanese species with quite attractive bark. The cultivar ‘Kojo-no-mai’ is suitable for a tiny garden, as pruning can keep it to a height of 1.5–2m. Brilliant autumn colour is a bonus. To my mind, bigger trees display their bark better, when the lenticels (those bumpy horizontal lines) highlight the shining mahogany that simply glows even in poor light.

Two standout choices are ‘Southern Gem’ and the Tibetan cherry (P. serrula), both of which have three seasons’ appeal – blossom, autumn foliage tones and sensational bark. The bark peels away in delicate strips by the lenticels, a characteristic more obvious in P. serrula.

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