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The Japanese Cherry Tree

Every year Japanese cherry trees beautify gardens and parks around the world. Perhaps the most iconic Japanese cherry trees within the United States are the ones that line the National Mall in Washington, D.C. But the good news is that if you live in a location with mild weather, you too can have your own “cherry blossom time” by planting a Japanese cherry tree in your own yard or garden. 

Keep reading to learn all about these beautiful cherry trees!

Japanese cherry trees with Mount Fuji in the background.

History of the Japanese Cherry Tree

Japanese cherry trees, or sakura, are a group of about 100 species of flowering cherry trees that originated in Japan. For over 1200 years, Japanese gardeners bred the most beautiful cherry trees every spring by grafting especially beautiful branches onto existing trees or cross-pollinating other trees to create new strains.

By the time of the Japanese Shoguns (1603 to 1867), cherry blossom time had become a national holiday celebrated by drinking sake under a beautiful, blooming Japanese cherry tree. In fact, these considerably large cherry trees were and are bred for their masses of pink or white blossoms in spring, and not actually for their fruit. 

Japanese cherry trees are now beloved all over the world Japan thanks to the efforts of an eccentric Englishman named Collingwood Ingram, a British ornithologist and plant collector. Ingram and his wife fell in love with the sakura on their honeymoon in Japan in 1907.

Ingram buried a cutting from a Japanese cherry tree in a potato and took it home with him via the Siberian Express, and in the following years, spread the trees to over 100 countries. By 1926, Ingram had become such a renowned expert on Japanese cherry trees that he was invited to speak to the Cherry Society in Tokyo. At the conference, he was told that the white Japanese cherry had gone extinct in Japan. Ingram, however, had a white Japanese cherry in his own garden in England. By cloning it, he was able to save the white cherry tree in Japan.

The famous flowering cherry trees in Washington, D.C. that I mentioned earlier were a gift to the United States from the Japanese government in 1912. Every spring, hundreds of thousands of tourists from all over the United States come out to see these amazing Japanese cherry trees, which are now over 100 years old.

Unlike the spindly cherry trees found growing wild in Europe and North America, native Japanese cherries have always been cultivated close to places where people live.

Japanese Cherry Tree Characteristics

Japanese cherry tree characteristics have evolved over centuries of breeding efforts. The Japanese cherries of 1,000 years ago had a shape similar to that of a weeping willow. Their branches drooped down almost to the ground, forming a cascade of blossoms every spring.

In the Kamikura period, beginning about the year 1200, Japanese cherries were crossed with exceptionally long-lived cherry trees found deep in the woods. Some individual trees used to provide genetics for the evolving Japanese cherry are now currently 1,500 to 2,000 years old.

In the 1500s and 1600s, Japanese cherries were then bred to be “double-flowered.” This gave them as many as 50 petals on each flower. 

Japanese cherry tree blossoms.

By the early 1900s, there was an amazing variety of Japanese cherry trees in Japan. As the population grew and Japan modernized, however, all varieties except the Yoshino were chopped down, leaving it to Ingram to preserve the trees that provide genes for modern Japanese cherries.

Japanese cherry trees today come in several well-known varieties:

  • Yoshino cherry trees are covered with white blossoms from top to bottom for about a week in the spring. This is the variety of the tree that Japanese people associate with Japanese cherries, and it is the variety you can see in Washington, D.C.
  • Kawazu-zakura cherry trees are covered with dark pink blossoms at the end of winter, before the weather warms up. It gets its odd biological clock from its ancestors in tropical Okinawa.
  • Yae-zakura cherry trees have more than five petals per blossom. Some species have blossoms with more petals than are easy to count.
  • Scientists were even able to breed cherry trees that flower every single season, like the Nishina Otome cherry blossom tree, through radiation planting.

There are Japanese cherry trees that grow to 50 feet tall, some that do well in containers, and others that are grown as bonsai. Some species of Japanese cherries have pendulous blossoms, hanging down like streamers, others that grow into a rounded shape, and still others with irregular, jagged branches. The variations seem limitless!

Planting Zones

There are varieties of Japanese cherry trees that are adapted to USDA Hardiness Zones four through nine. Some varieties grafted onto sour cherry rootstock are only viable in Zones four through six, while container-grown trees may even bloom in Zone nine.

All Japanese cherry trees can tolerate hot, humid summers (like those in Japan) once they are established, but the need for chilling hours during the winter is variable. Experts at your local nursery will know which varieties work best for your location.

Size and Spacing

Some of the pendulous varieties of Japanese cherry trees that bear flowers on long weeping willow-like stems that droop down to the ground, only need to be planted 12 to 15 feet apart. If you plan to train the pendulous tree to grow on an arbor or canopy, you should have all the woodwork done and painted by the time you plant the tree.

Full-sized Japanese cherry trees need to be planted 20 to 40 feet apart, depending on how you plan to prune and train them. Japanese cherry trees grafted to dwarfing rootstock, only need to be planted five to 10 feet apart.

You can also grow a Japanese cherry tree in a 40 gallon container filled with a mixture of sphagnum moss, perlite, vermiculite, and compost. You should need prune it so it does not grow more than six feet tall.

Japanese Cherry Trees.

Pollination

Since you grow a Japanese cherry tree for its blooms, not for its fruit, you do not have to worry about pollination.

Tree Care

Sunlight

Japanese cherry trees, like other cherry trees, prefer to grow in full sunlight. They do well with dappled afternoon shade, and also need a good amount of sun in the morning. It’s important for the leaves of any plant to dry off the dew that collects overnight in the morning to prevent bacterial diseases and mildew.

Watering

Japanese cherry trees need constantly moist but never boggy soil. They don’t grow well in heavy clay, and they usually don’t thrive next to streams.

In the summer, give them a thorough soaking when their soil is dry at a depth of two inches (if you’re not expecting rain any time soon).

Pruning

When to Prune

The principle behind pruning Japanese cherry trees is the same as pruning other fruit trees. Excess branches need to be removed for sunlight and air circulation to reach the lower and inner limbs. Dead wood that can’t support foliage should be removed so the tree has more energy for flowering.

The best time of year to prune a Japanese cherry tree is in late winter. You don’t want to prune a tree so early in the year that new growth is stimulated while the weather is still cold.

For Japanese cherry trees with pink blossoms, prune about two weeks before your expected last frost. For white-blossom cherry trees, prune about the same time as the last frost of the season. For any Japanese cherry tree, you should wait until the flower buds are just beginning to show spring color but aren’t open yet.

You’re not worried about fruit production, but you still should avoid summer pruning. Summer is the time of year that your Japanese cherry tree adds height and width.

A Japanese cherry tree in a green field..

How to Prune

When you prune a Japanese cherry tree, you’ll need a hand pruner, long-handled lopping shears, and a pruning saw. Sterilize your cutting tools with bleach before and after each tree.

Remove any suckers growing from the rootstock or from the base of the tree. Then remove any weak branches, cutting flush with the stem or trunk where they are attached. 

Make cuts at an angle so moisture falls off of the cut; water pooling on a cut can grow bacteria.

If your goal is to keep your tree small, you should top it in the first year or two of growth to control its shape. If your tree is at least 30 inches tall, then cut the leader at a 45 degree angle about 24 inches above the ground. This is the only time you should ever top your cherry tree.

In subsequent years, trim the branches that grow out from the tree to give in the shape and size you want.

Consuming Japanese Cherry Blossoms

Japanese cherry blossoms make an interesting tea. You can steep fresh Japanese cherry blossoms in hot water or dry them for use later in the year. If you don’t have your own Japanese cherry tree, you can also find cherry blossom tea in larger supermarkets.

Japanese cherry fruits, however, are small, bitter, and mostly seed. The seed, like the seeds of all stone fruits, contains toxic amounts of a chemical called amygdalin, which your body turns into cyanide. Don’t eat the fruit!

The tree’s leaves also contain a blood-thinning substance called Coumadin, the same chemical used to make the drug Warfarin. Don’t eat them or use them in tea!

Moral of the story: stick to the blossoms!

Japanese cherry blossom tea.

Health Benefits of Japanese Cherry Trees

As far as consumption goes, there aren’t any health benefits to eating Japanese cherry fruit, because it is poisonous. Don’t eat it! However, there seem to be significant health benefits that result from the practice of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” which can certainly include the beauty of Japanese cherry blossoms and has been shown to lower stress hormone levels and blood pressure

Now You Know All About the Japanese Cherry Tree!

Ready to buy your own Japanese cherry tree? Find Japanese Cherry Trees online and make your garden that much more beautiful! These trees aren’t just beautiful, but also ancient, and with a very interesting story. Remember to stick to cherry blossom tea if you want to consume them, and if you’re feeling stressed, try some forest bathing in the shade of their beautiful pink or white flowers. Next, learn all about other cherry tree varieties whose fruits you can actually eat!