by Peter Williams
Timing is everything and plants that flower in the short dark days of mid-winter are always welcome in my garden. Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’, the pink winter-flowering cherry, does not always get its festive timing exactly right, but in most years including 2020, it is in flower on Christmas Day. Buds are produced in early autumn and flowers appear during mild spells from October until April.
The origins of this and many other flowering cherry cultivars is not really known. There is a story that it was discovered in the late 1600’s when a Japanese emperor noticed a single specimen flowering in a courtyard in Kyoto late autumn. Grafting material was taken to propagate more plants and the tree became known as Prunus ‘Jugatsu-zakura’ which translates as cherry of the tenth month – a reference to the time at which its first flowers can open. In most years the main flowering period is April and in very cold years like 2010-11, this is the only time that the tree flowers.
Winter-flowering cherries occur in pink and white flowered forms and are small, round-headed trees suitable for even the smallest gardens. Both white and pink forms are freely available but some nurseries still offer ‘top-worked’ specimens where the winter cherry is grafted onto a more vigorous rootstock at about chest height. The rootstock always grows faster than the scion and the result is usually a rather ugly specimen with a disproportionately thick main stem. Bottom worked cherries will have the graft union at the base of the plant and this results in a far better proportioned young tree and the graft union can easily be hidden by associated planting.
Like most ornamental cherries the winter-flowering sorts will grow happily in both acid and alkaline soils but they do not thrive in soils that become waterlogged over winter.
The only negative features of the winter-flowering cherries are that the bark and autumn leaf colouration are not very striking.