The Secrets of the Nanking Cherry Bush

Introduction

The Nanking Cherry, a native of northern China, has found its way into gardens across Russia and Eastern Europe. Although it once held great promise for commercial fruit production in the United States, it faded into obscurity in favor of more easily marketable options. Today, Nanking cherry is not commonly found in nurseries, but its adaptability to different climates and conditions makes it an intriguing choice for home gardens.

The Resilient Nanking Cherry Plants

Nanking cherry, part of the Prunus genus, is a deciduous and robust plant that can live up to 50 years with proper care. These bushes are known for their upright growth, reaching heights of 15 feet, although most mature plants are 8 to 12 feet tall. The leaves, measuring 1 to 1 ½ inches wide and 3 inches long, are serrated and covered in a downy fuzz, earning the cherry one of its common names, the ‘downy cherry.’ In early spring, the bush blossoms with numerous white flowers, creating a visually stunning display. These flowers are frost tolerant and often survive late-spring freezes when other fruits fail. By June, the cherry fruits ripen, ranging in taste from sweet to tart. With an average diameter of ½ inch and a large pit, the fruits may be modest in size but are brimming with flavor.

Growing Nanking Cherries: A Delightful Challenge

Propagation

Growing Nanking cherries from seed is a straightforward process. Seeds can be obtained from reputable online sources or collected from existing bushes. Once the seeds are obtained, a period of cold stratification is required for successful germination. Cold stratification involves keeping the seeds moist at low temperatures (32 to 45 degrees F) for approximately 100 days. This can be achieved by storing the seeds in a medium such as wet sand, sphagnum-peat moss, or vermiculite in a refrigerator. Alternatively, seeds can be sown outdoors in the fall, allowing natural temperatures to provide the required stratification. However, outdoor sowing may attract rodents and requires careful monitoring of moisture levels.

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Site Selection

Nanking cherry bushes have proven their adaptability to various climates, making them suitable for nearly any region. Originally hailing from regions with extreme temperature variations, these cherries can tolerate temperatures ranging from -40 to 90 °F in a single season. They prefer arid climates but can withstand different levels of sun exposure. While they can grow in partial shade, the bushes produce a more abundant harvest when exposed to eight or more hours of full sun per day. These cherries are also surprisingly tolerant of alkaline soil, withstanding pH levels up to 8.0 and potentially higher. Although they thrive in well-drained, sandy soils, they can adapt to different soil types with ease.

Soil Preparation

Like any other planting endeavor, preparing the soil beforehand is crucial for successful growth. Conduct a soil test to determine its nutrient composition and amend accordingly. Incorporate organic matter such as compost or manure deeply into the soil. Additionally, control perennial weeds through non-residual herbicides or repeated tillage before planting.

Planting and Spacing

The optimal time for transplanting Nanking cherries is in the fall, allowing the trees to establish themselves before the arrival of hot summer temperatures. However, spring and even summer plantings are possible with careful attention to irrigation. Given that Nanking cherry lacks standard cultivars, specific spacing recommendations are difficult. Generally, spacing individual plants between 8 to 15 feet apart allows for convenient pruning and harvesting. For hedges or windbreaks, plantings spaced 6 to 10 feet apart prove effective while providing an attractive display.

Pruning

Nanking cherries require minimal pruning unless maintaining a formal hedge. However, a yearly late-winter pruning session can improve air circulation and encourage productivity. Begin by removing broken, damaged, or diseased branches. Next, thin out the center of the bush to promote airflow. Finally, eliminate any branches that cross or touch each other. On an annual basis, aim to remove 3 to 5 old canes to maintain healthy growth.

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Problems with Growing Nanking Cherries

While specific information about Nanking cherries in Utah is limited, it is likely that they face similar pests and diseases as other cherry varieties. Utah Pests provides comprehensive information on common pests affecting cherries throughout the region. Spider mites, western cherry fruit flies, black cherry aphids, and coryneum blight are among the challenges that gardeners may encounter. Implementing appropriate control measures and staying vigilant can help mitigate these issues.

By embracing the resilience and unique characteristics of the Nanking cherry bush, gardeners can enjoy the beauty of its blossoms and the delightful taste of its fruits. Although it may require a bit of extra effort to find, the Nanking cherry is a remarkable addition to any garden. To learn more or purchase Nanking cherry plants, visit Ames Farm Center.