Whether you were born with pluff mud in your veins or you’re a recent transplant, odds are that you have been tempted to purchase one of those scraggly, balled and burlapped fruit trees found clustered near grocery store entrances around Easter. Adorned with plant tags that promise abundant edible fruit, the fact is that most of these plants are orphans from somewhere up north, and you are their last hope. But don’t let your horticultural compassion get the best of you because these castoffs will never reward you with pie-worthy cherries or crisp snacking apples. Why? Well, when was the last time you saw a cherry or apple orchard in Charleston?
The cold truth about growing “real” fruit trees in much of the Deep South is that it’s not successful. This is because many fruit-bearing trees, including cherry, plum, apricot and apple require extended periods of cold-induced dormancy. This affords them time to gather enough botanical vigor to produce progeny. The problem is that our mild climate is exceedingly short on what are referred to as chill or chilling hours, defined as the number of hours that temperatures stay between 32 and 45 degrees. The Lowcountry’s average is a measly 400 to 600 hours. (Depending on the variety, cherry needs between 850 and 1300 chilling hours to produce a crop.)
So why are Charleston gardens frequently filled with breathtaking flowering fruit trees during early- to midspring? They’re ornamental ones and they rarely—if ever— produce fit-to-be-eaten fruit. Although most are shorter-lived (few make it beyond 15 to 20 years) than other flowering trees such as vitex and our ubiquitous crape myrtle, certain cultivars of ornamental cherry, plum, apricot (Prunus spp.) and Southern Crabapple (Malus angustifolia) shrug off our summertime heat and humidity and ignore our gentle winters. All they need is full to part sun and moist, welldrained soil.
However, this is not to suggest that prunus or malus is pest and disease free. Like their fruit bearing relatives, they are susceptible to viruses and fungi, not to mention aphids, caterpillars and borers. And prunus must be treated gently because this genus’ bark is paper-thin. A few good whacks from a lawn mower or a string trimmer will compromise the longevity of even the healthiest specimen.
The annual National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C., has undoubtedly influenced our interest in flowering cherry. Fortunately, we can cultivate both of their signature trees, Yoshino Cherry (P. x yedoensis) and Japanese Flowering Cherry ‘Kwanzan’ (Prunus serrulata ‘Kwanzan’). The latter is more prominent in Charleston, perhaps because of wholesale nursery availability but also because ‘Kwanzan’ has slightly better resistance against pestilence than other ornamental cherry varieties. Although it has lost some of its vigor, a stunning example has lived on Broad Street near Charleston’s famous Four Corners of Law for nearly 20 years.
Once you see the multitude of pendant, 2 1/2-inch double- pink blossom clusters on ‘Kwanzan,’ you’ll want one. But before you run out to one of our locally owned garden centers, please note that this tree, whose bronze-tinged leaves emerge shortly after flowering begins, is also called Oriental Cherry. And to further confuse gardeners, the Missouri Botanical Garden recently officially changed this cultivar’s name to ‘Kanzan.’ I mention this because there are no standards regarding plant tag information. As a result, this causes endless confusion between the seller and purchaser.
But by far the festival’s most famous tree is Yoshino Cherry. It too often performs satisfactorily here, but Hidden Ponds Nursery garden designer Lori Taylor prefers its cousin, Weeping ‘Shidare Yoshino’ (P. x yedoensis ‘Shidare Yoshino’) for home landscapes. Taylor believes that ‘Shidare’ is slightly more pestand disease-resistant than the straight yedoensis species. Plus, when its eye-catching arching branches are smothered with white to pink flowers in spring, it lends an air of flamboyance to a still mostly sleeping late winter garden.
Another pretty little prunus is Japanese Flowering Apricot (P. mume). Depending on where it is planted, its pink, sometimes white, blooms appear on bare branches sometime between January and March. It is not as tall or as wide as ornamental cherry, so it fits comfortably in small city gardens.
For folks who prefer the native approach, Mexican Plum (P. mexicana) and Southern Crabapple are indigenous to the Southeast. However, Mexican Plum is rarely grown commercially, which is unfortunate because it sports shiny leaves with fuzzy undersides and thorny branches. If you did not grow up in the South, yet long for a crabapple, M. angustifolia will not disappoint you. Just like those other varieties up north, its pink blossoms are fragrant. This tree puts on quite a show each spring.
PJ Gartin is a full-time freelance writer who lives in Charleston.