The Nanking cherry flowers and fruits abundantly.

Cherries are my favorite fruit, but their trees (Prunus spp.) don’t survive well in these parts due to black knot disease. So I was happy to discover that cherries can grow on shrubs too.

Granted, a Nanking cherry (Prunus tomentosa) is only about 1/2 inch wide and mostly pit. Also known as Shanghai cherry, the Oriental fruit reportedly has a flavor sweeter than sour cherries, but more tart than the sweet kind. That should be just right for me, since I prefer fruits which aren’t saccharine. Actually, the flavor can vary according to seedling, so it isn’t guaranteed to be good.

Still, I snatched up seeds of Nanking cherry when I saw them advertised. If I decide that I don’t like the fruits, I’m sure the birds will be happy to clean them up for me. And the plants still should be worth growing for their ornamental value, due to profuse springtime bloom and peeling rust-colored bark.

Prunus tomentosaThose blooms reportedly appear on the bushes before the leaves do and are pink in bud, white when they open, and about 1/2-inch wide. The bushes can grow to 10 feet in height and are hardy as far north as USDA zone 2, but may not prosper in sultry climates. They prefer full sun and mildly acidic, well-drained soil.

Their 2 to 3-inch leaves have downy undersides, which explains their “hairy” species name. The cherries, which ripen in early to mid-summer, can appear as soon as the bush’s second year, and there are rarer pink and white-fruited varieties as well as the more typical red ones. If you want to keep those fruits for yourself rather than leaving them for the birds, you may need to “cast a wide net”—over your bushes, that is!

The seeds require stratification, and germinate quite heavily when provided with it. I put mine in damp paper towels in the refrigerator around Christmas time and they began breaking open about 56 days later. I then potted them up and placed them under grow lights in our cool basement. At the moment (early May), the seedlings are about 4 to 6 inches tall and getting quite crowded since I have about 15 of them. (I always tend to be too pessimistic about the germination of seeds which require cold treatment.)

Prunus tomentosaSince the bush cherries are a Prunus species also, it’s possible that they might succumb to black knot too, but thus far I haven’t seen that particular affliction mentioned in connection with them. However, I have seen complaints about a borer of some sort which can affect the branches, and bunnies apparently like to chow down on the young seedlings too.

Rabbits actually have become a bit scarce around here since the coyotes moved in, but I should plant at least two bushes for good pollination and insurance—and probably will give the rest away to the more gardening-minded of my siblings. That way, I can hassle them into giving some back if necessary. Life may not yet be a bowl of cherries, but I’m still working on that!


Photos: Both blossoms photos are by [email protected] The cherries photo is by [email protected]