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Prunus is a huge group of trees and shrubs that includes many of our favorite spring-flowering trees, some of the most common privacy hedges and arguably our tastiest fruits. Peaches, plums, nectarines, cherries and almonds are all different species of Prunus.
English Laurel, long the go-to plant for blocking the prying eyes of nosy neighbors is also a member. The glorious flowering cherry trees that dot Portland’s Waterfront Park welcoming spring are yet another example. This article covers the species grown for ornamental use.
We have listed some of our favorites. Click to jump to the category
To find information about fruiting Prunus species, visit our Fruits & Berries Page.
Bitter Cherry P. emarginata – Native to the Northwest. White flowers with notched petals bloom in late winter, red bitter berries in summer are good for wildlife. Dark green leaves are lighter underneath. Plants grow into a small tree or large shrub, 7-50’ tall, depending on their culture. Roots are very wide-spreading, often forming suckers far from the original tree. In the wild they often form thickets.
Grows 7-50’ tall
Sun, part shade, or shade – Hardy Z4
European Birdcherry P. padus – Native to Europe, northern Asia, Korea & Japan. Clusters of white flowers in April after other flowering cherries are finished blooming. Green leaves turn yellow to bronze before falling in autumn. Small black wrinkled fruit in clusters is loved by birds, but bitter for humans. Prone to aphid problems.
Grows 30-40’ tall, upright with a round canopy
Sun, Hardy Z3
Sargent Cherry P. sargentii – Light pink flowers in April, shiny dark green leaves turn bronze or red in fall. Fruit is small, black and bitter. Growth is upright and oval, in cultivation 20-30’ x 20-30’ is a reasonable expectation, though they can get taller. Several cultivated varieties are available.
P. sargentii ‘Columnaris’ is upright and narrow, 20-30’ x 8-10’.
P. ‘Accolade’ – A hybrid between P. sargentii x P. subhirtella, Accolade has dark pink buds and semi-double pale pink flowers. It has an upright open shape, 20-25’ tall & wide.
Paperbark Cherry P. serrula – (See sidepanel for photo) Excellent shiny red-brown bark that peels in big strips provides nice winter interest. Flowers are white & sparse, leaves are green. Upright pyramidal shape. Prone to canker and borer problems.
20-30’ tall, Hardy Z6
Japanese Flowering Cherry P. serrulata – This is the species for many of the trees commonly brought to mind when folks consider flowering cherries. It’s been in cultivation for hundreds of years and many variations are available.
‘Amanogawa’ – Fragrant pale pink single to semi-double flowers, very narrow columnar shape, 20’ x 4-5’
‘Kwanzan’ – Deep pink flowers with many petals usually bloom in early April. New leaves are bronze, turn green during summer and peachy gold in autumn before dropping. Growth is upright, vase-shaped with a broad canopy, 30-40’ tall & wide.
‘Mount Fuji’ – Pink flower buds open to fragrant white semi-double flowers, earlier than ‘Kwanzan’. New leaves are bronze, turning green in summer. The shape is upright with a wide horizontal branching pattern, 15-20’ tall by 20-25’ wide.
‘Shirogugen’ – Pink buds open to white double flowers that age pink. Upright vase shape with horizontal branching pattern creates a flat-topped wide crown, 25’ x 30’.
‘Shogetsu’ – Double, 2” blush pink flowers fade to white. New leaves are bronze, turning green during summer heat. Upright rounded shape, 15-20’ x 20-25’.
Many of these varieties are available grafted to Gisela root stock that dwarfs the tree to about half of its original size.
Higan or Weeping Cherry P. subhirtella – Early blooming species that has both upright and weeping varieties.
‘Autumnalis’ – Pale pink semi-double flowers open sporadically during the warmer spells of winter, usually finishing in early March. Slender twiggy branches create an open woodland look. Upright growth to 20-40’ x 15-30’.
‘Pendula or ‘Pendula Double’ – Pink flowers in March are single or double and lightly fragrant. Weeping branches are usually grafted to a 4 or 6’ trunk and grow out and down to the ground, with gradual mounding adding height gradually. In 10 years trees are about 12-15’ tall x 10-12’ wide, but in time branches will form some upright growth and trees can reach 30’ tall x 40’ wide. Prone to shot-hole fungus.
Yoshino Cherry P. x yedoensis – In Japan Yoshino Cherries are called ‘The National Flower’. In 1912, the mayor of Tokyo gifted 900 Yoshinos to the USA, which were planted in Washington D.C. Clusters of small flowers are pale pink in bud and white when open. Flowers open before green leaves fill-in. Leaves turn lovely yellow and peach in autumn before falling. Young trees grow very fast and develop thick trunks quickly. Trees mature around 40-50’ tall.
‘Akebono’ – Akebono Cherries are planted around Oregon’s capital building in Salem. Their flowers and shape are very similar to Yoshino but their form is smaller, making it a more manageable city tree. It matures around 25’ x 25’.
Flowering Purple-leaf Plums P. cerasifera – One of the first trees to bloom in spring with pretty pink flowers. Green-leaved forms exist, but the most ornamental forms have dark purple leaves. Most forms develop a red, yellow or purple fruit that is edible, but is usually left for birds. Many cultivated varieties exist, differing mostly in their overall shape. All types are subject to problems with shot-hole fungus in the leaves and serious aphid problems. Without treatment an aphid infestation will cause considerable dropping of sticky aphid dew on whatever is parked beneath the tree. All are best in full sun and hardy to Z5.
‘Crimson Pointe’ – columnar form growing to 20’ tall & 5-6’ wide
‘Hollywood’ – leaves are dark green above & purple below - grows to 30’ x 20’
‘Krauter Vesuvius’ – grows to 30’ x 20’
‘Newport’ – grows to 15-20’ tall & wide, hardy in Z4
‘Thundercloud’ – the most commonly planted purple plum, grows to 20’ x 20’
Bliriana Plum P. x blireana – A hybrid between P. cerasifera and P. mume. Double pink flowers, purple leaves and purple plums. Grows to 20’ x 20’.
Purple-leaf Sand Cherry P. x cistena – A hybrid between P. cerasifera and P. pumila. Flowers and leaves are the same as tree-form plums, but this is a shrub. It grows in an upright, multi-stemmed dense shape to 6-10’. It likes full sun, and is super hardy to Z3.
Flowering Japanese Apricot P. mume – Flowers on bare branches during winter in colors from white to dark pink, in single or double form. Leaves are green and sometimes glowing yellow fruit develops in summer. Grows into a small tree to 15-20’ tall. Sun, Z6
English Laurel P. laurocerasus – Scented small white flowers along 2” spikes in spring develop into seedy black berries in summer. Leaves are large, pointed, glossy and evergreen.
The species grows very fast, sometimes more than 4’ in one year. In Portland unpruned English Laurels commonly reach 25’ x 25’. The national champion is 33’ tall x 52’ wide in Seattle.
Often laurels are planted without knowledge of the immense size they can reach in a relatively short amount of time. They can be kept smaller, to about 8-12’ tall and wide with pruning twice a year. If that sounds like a lot of work to you, choose a different plant. There are several varieties of laurel that grow more slowly.
‘Nana’ – grows to 4-6’ tall
‘Otto Luken’ – leaves are smaller, more narrow than species, grows to 3-4’ x 8-10’
‘Schipkaensis’ – found at high altitude in Bulgaria – grows to 8-10’ tall & wide.
All varieties are subject to problems with shot-hole fungus, and because the plant keeps leaves during winter, it can be a big eyesore.
Portugese Laurel P. lusitanica – White flowers in spring, leathery evergreen leaves, red stems, shrubby upright shape. Grows more slowly than English Laurel, but still attains substantial size, around 10-20’ tall & wider. Sun, Z7
Photos courtesy of OSU and Peggy Acott.
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Genus: Prunus (pr-OO-nus)
Common: Cherry, Plum, Peach, Almond, Apricot, Nectarine, Laurel
Origin: Over 400 species of trees and shrubs from temperate northern climates world-wide.
Characteristics: Flowers are usually white, sometimes pink, usually with 5 petals. Those with more petals are called ‘double’. Some flowers, like those on Laurels are held in spikes, or vertical clusters. Many are sweetly fragrant. Fruit is fleshy and single seeded. Leaves are sometimes evergreen but mostly deciduous. Some Prunus that lose their leaves have nice peachy-orange fall color, but most have insignificant fall interest.
Size: Shrubs are usually large, growing above 6’ tall. Trees vary by species. The smallest dwarf Peach trees are mature at just 3’ tall, and the largest Cherries and Laurels are 40’ and taller.
Culture: Excellent soil drainage is imperative when growing any type of Prunus. Excellent soil drainage means creating a situation where water flows through the soil allowing roots a nice drink. If soil becomes water-logged, roots cannot breathe and will rot. If water runs across the top of the soil without sinking in, like on a slope, roots cannot access enough water.
Improve soil be blending compost into a wide planting area. Pumice can also be added to sites that are very dense, or to make a bed for particularly testy plants.
Plums, Cherries and Laurels are among the more tolerant species of our PNW heavy clay soils. Peaches, Nectarines, Apricots and Almonds are among the more difficult species to grow in our climate. Peaches and Nectarines thrive east of the Cascades where rain is less plentiful, soil is more alkaline and naturally better draining.
To grow Peaches and other difficult species successfully west of the Cascades, create an environment that is drier during winter months. Growing in containers, under a south-facing eve for example, will allow for enough sun and will limit moisture while providing good soil drainage and a neutral pH.
For more information on growing fruit trees, follow this link to Portland Nursery’s fruit page.
Light: Full sun, at least 6 hours per day, preferably during the warmest part of the day.
Problems: Problems are touched-on briefly in the culture section of this page. There are many other concerns though.
Overgrowth = Over-Work English Laurel grows very fast and will out-grow a spot in no time, requiring pruning several times a year to keep it in check.
Birds like the fruit If trees are planted to provide fruit, cherries for instance, they may need to be protected from birds, critters like raccoons and insects that appreciate tasty fruit just as much as you do.
Fungal diseases: All Prunus are prone to fungal problems. Some, like Shot Hole Fungus, cause just cosmetic damage, where others cause damage to the fruit and leaves, and may ultimately cause the death of the tree.
Fruit-drop – Many trees sold for pretty spring flowers develop fruit in summer. Often the fruit drops onto sidewalks and lawns making a sticky mess.