Cherry Blossoms Through the Season

UBC Botanical Garden hosts an abundance of cherry trees that explode with beauty throughout the spring season. Read on to hear from Douglas Justice, Associate Director | Horticulture and Curation, about the seasonality of several exceptional varieties. No matter what time you visit UBC Botanical Garden or Nitobe Memorial Garden this spring, there will be a beautiful spring cherry in bloom!

Beyond the Garden, there are some 43,000 cherry blossom trees in Vancouver, which inspire public and artistic appreciation through events such as the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival, as well as community science initiatives. For the third year in a row, scientists at UBC are asking the public to help predict the peak bloom time of cherries around the world. You could even win a prize!

To learn more about the cherries at UBC Botanical Garden, join Douglas on a Spring Cherry Tour on April 13th, 2024 from 2:00pm to 3:30pm.  

Part 1: The Early Cherries 

In January and February, we often have umbrellas up, heads down, avoiding the wind and rain (or worse), and seldom think to look closely at trees. But this is the time when the Japanese spring cherry blooms, and Whitcomb spring cherry, Prunus itosakura ‘Whitcomb’, turns heads, dependably in mid to late February. From masses of purple-pink buds, the 5-petaled flowers of this cherry slowly expand and lighten, until they reach a crescendo of brilliant, deep pink. There is a group of three planted beside the Botanical Garden parking lot close to the Reception Centre. Whitcomb cherry is named for the Seattle-area philanthropist and developer, David Whitcomb (1879-1966) in whose garden this seedling was discovered.

Prunus itosakura ‘Whitcomb’

Prunus ‘Accolade’

Prunus ‘Accolade’








Hard on its heels, usually at the beginning of March, Prunus ‘Accolade’ announces itself with a confidence that is hard to match. This comes from its moderate-sized, double, unapologetically bright pink flowers. Its delicate branching and wide spreading crown add considerably to its charm, but let’s be honest: people are attracted to the pink pizzazz. Accolade, a “modern” cross between the spring cherry and another Japanese species, Prunus sargentii, which is known in Japan as O-yama-zakura (big mountain cherry—for its much larger stature) blooms later on, in mid-April. A group of three Sargent cherries is located where Stearn Trail diverges from Upper Asian Way in the Asian Garden. ‘Accolade’ was made at the English Knaphill Nursery in 1952. There is a single specimen at the northwest corner of the Reception Centre and another at Nitobe Memorial Garden.

Despite the joy that the earliest cherries bring, most people only start to notice cherry blossoms after the Ides (middle) of March. As the sun climbs in the sky in springtime, we all anticipate release from winter’s grip. The giddiness we feel is probably dopamine receptors in the brain getting revved up for cherry bud-break (anyway, that’s my explanation). The spring equinox is around March 21st and with the turn of the season these receptors get a real workout. It’s not surprising that people describe cherries and cherry viewing in spiritual terms, such as “transcendent,” “heavenly” or “sublime.” By the last week of March or the first week of April, we’re well into it. The famous cherry blossom viewing (hanami) festivals in Japan start at this time, and are mostly based around the millions of Tokyo or Yoshino cherries, Prunus × yedoensis ‘Somei-yoshino’ planted all across Japan, and elsewhere. This famous cultivar can be seen at a few places in Vancouver, including Nitobe Memorial Garden. A seedling of Tokyo cherry, discovered in a California nursery in 1926, goes by the name Prunus × yedoensis ‘Akebono’ (daybreak cherry). This cherry is similar to its parent, but with flowers that are slightly deeper pink and often with a sixth (usually incomplete) petal. ‘Akebono’ is easily the most commonly planted cherry around Vancouver, and one of about a half dozen ornamental cherry cultivars newly planted at Nitobe Memorial Garden.  

Prunus ‘Umineko’

Prunus ‘Pandora’

Prunus sargentii

At about the same time, in the bed on the north side of the Botanical Garden entrance roundabout, Prunus ‘Pandora opens its soft pink blossoms. Involving Tokyo cherry and spring cherry as parents, this English hybrid was developed in 1939 by the famous cherry breeder Collingwood “Cherry” Ingram. ‘Pandora’ can be recognized by its fine branching, upright form and flowers with narrow, notched, soft-pink petals, suffused deeper pink at the tips, that open flat, showing conspicuous gaps between. Another of Cherry Ingram’s creations Prunus ‘Umineko’ opens its pure white flowers a week or so later, after its leaves have started to emerge. This cultivar was selected from a 1928-cross between the Japanese hill cherry, P. jamasakura, and the more diminutive Fuji cherry, Prunus incisa (a small specimen is located in the E. H. Lohbrunner Garden). A group of three of these densely-branched, strongly-upright ‘Umineko’ is situated at the western corner of the parking lot. The rounded petals apparently suggested to Ingram the feathers of a gull (umineko means “seagull” in Japanese). Note that Cherry Ingram was an ornithologist long before he became interested in ornamental cherries.  

Prunus ‘Ojochin’

From here on through April there is an avalanche of flowering cultivars. At Nitobe, every week brings another one or two into flower. The sequence usually starts with ‘Accolade’, followed by ‘Somei-yoshino’ and ‘Akebono’, then ‘Washi-no-o’ (eagle’s tail) and ‘Ojochin’ (large lantern) soon after. The later cherries, of which there are many at Nitobe and the Botanical Garden, follow directly. ‘Washi-no-o’ is an ancient sato-zakura (village cherry) known since the 17th century for its fragrant, wide-opening white flowers with large, ragged-edged petals. ‘Ojochin is another old (late 1600s) sato-zakura, though with large, somewhat inflated, lantern-like buds. These open lazily to display drooping five-petaled flowers of the lightest pink. Only a few specimens of this cultivar have been identified in the Vancouver area. There is an older tree at the Cenotaph (Japanese Memorial) in Stanley Park, two in the Nitobe Garden, and two young plants in the Wharton Cherry Grove at UBC Botanical Garden.  

Part 2: The Late Cherries

Prunus ‘Tai-haku’

Splitting the bloom times of ornamental cherries into early and late is somewhat arbitrary, as the weather often has a profound effect on cherry phenology (timing), as well as how long individual blossoms last.  Still, the dividing line is usually recognized as beginning around the second week of April.  

Leading off at UBC are two cultivars that at a distance could be confused: ‘Tai-haku’ (great white cherry) and ‘Ukon’ (turmeric cherry). There is a row of ‘Tai-haku’ west of the entrance to UBC Botanical Garden, parallel to Marine Drive. Single white flowers, the largest of any of the cultivated cherries, emerge from soft-pink buds, and the blossoms contrast with bronzy, barely-emerging leaves. A younger specimen at Nitobe Memorial Garden is growing on its own roots. The Botanical Garden group of ‘Tai-haku’ are all grafted plants, and the overly vigorous commercial rootstock is causing all sorts of havoc; they exhibit the shallow roots and extensive suckering that is all too familiar with grafted cherries. Visitors should be able to recognize significant differences between the grafted and un-grafted trees, not least that the grafted ones show a congested proliferation of scaffold branches at about 175 cm above the ground, while wider-spaced, more natural-looking branching characterizes un-grafted trees. Note that all of cherries inside the fence at the Botanical Garden and all of the youngest cherries at Nitobe are growing on their own roots, and all of the remaining grafted plants will gradually be replaced by own-root cherries. 

Prunus ‘Ukon’

Like ‘Tai-haku’, ‘Ukon’ has an upright-spreading crown, but its smaller flowers emerge from pinkish buds and open with a yellow cast, as though barely dusted with turmeric (ukon means “turmeric” in Japanese). The flowers are also mostly semi-double—that is, endowed with a few extra petals. Gyoiko’ (harlequin cherry), sits a few trees to the northwest of ‘Ukon’. Considered a close relative (it probably originated as a branch mutation of ‘Ukon’), ‘Gyoiko’ blooms about a week later. Both cultivars were known before 1780 in Japan. The harlequin cherry’s extraordinary flowers are white, coloured with prominent green stripes, and backed by a purplish calyx (the collective term for the sepals), and the heart of the flower also sometimes develops purple-red streaks. The name gyoiko refers to a purple, white and green robe worn by noblewomen at court in Imperial Japan.  

Other sato-zakura abound in both gardens. In Nitobe Memorial Garden, ‘Shirotae’ (Mt. Fuji) comes into bloom at about the same time that ‘Ukon’ is flowering at the Botanical Garden. The name shirotae refers to a type of white Japanese cloth, and was applied to this cultivar at least as far back as the 1880s. ‘Shirotae’ is a low, very broad-spreading sato-zakura that mostly blooms when its leaves have already burst out and started to expand. The leaves are distinctive not just for their intense green, but also for the long hair-tips on the teeth that crowd the margins, while the generously-borne, pure white flowers are fragrant. Mature trees bear fully double flowers. 

Prunus ‘Ichiyo’

Prunus ‘Mikuruma-gaeshi’

A sato-zakura both rarely cultivated and mostly underappreciated, ‘Ichiyo’ is often confused with the showier- and later-flowering ‘Shiro-fugen’. The robust growth and sublimely beautiful, soft pink, fully-double flowers of ‘Ichiyo’ are on full display on the north side of the roundabout in the Botanical Garden entrance in mid- to late April. In the Botanical Garden, ‘Mikuruma-gaeshi’ follows ‘Ichiyo’ by a week, more or less. ‘Mikuruma-gaeshi’ is known by the appropriately-evocative, “royal carriage returns” and has both single and semi-double flowers nearly as large as those of the great white cherry. This rare cultivar, which is also displayed at Nitobe, presents its apple-blossom-like flowers in substantial clusters on short, unbranched “spurs” that stud the sparse, sinuous, upright branches. Close up, these exquisite flowers might just take a viewer’s breath away, as they have done since the 15th century in Japan.   

In the Botanical Garden, the modern cultivar ‘Pink Perfection’ and the ancient ‘Ito-kukuri’ are both flowering around this time. ‘Pink Perfection’ is a modern English sato-zakura hybrid, discovered and named in 1935 and thought to be a cross of ‘Shogetsu’ and ‘Kanzan’. It is recognized by its abundant large, white-centred, pale pink flowers, and its lax, somewhat disorganized branching habit and generally untidy appearance. ‘Ito-kukuri’ is a more sparsely branched, umbrella-shaped sato-zakura known from before 1681. It is another extremely rare cherry locally. Trees produce 4- to 4.5-cm-diameter, bowl-shaped, soft pink, double flowers of singular beauty. Flowers are borne on short spurs and are so crowded as to appear bound together (‘Ito-kukuri’ is translated from Japanese as “bundled with thread”). 

Prunus ‘Ito-kukuri’

‘Takasago’ is another ancient sato-zakura, first recorded in mid 18th century Japan. Like ‘Mikuruma-gaeshi’ and ‘Ito-kukuri’, ‘Takasago’ produces flowers in dense clusters, but the tree itself is well-shaped. Our specimen at Nitobe is young, and only bears a few small clusters of lovely apple-blossom-like flowers, usually in early May. At least four other sato-zakura are blooming at the same time in Nitobe. ‘Taki-nioi’ (incense waterfall), is an exceptionally rare cultivar that forms an irregular, spreading crown with drooping outer branches. The almond-scented flowers have five ragged-edged petals and are pure white, contrasting well with the associated purple-bronze stalks and emerging foliage. Until we started our own-root cherry propagation program about a decade ago, our Nitobe tree was (as far as we can tell) the only example of this cultivar in North America. ‘Kiku-zakura’ (chrysanthemum cherry) is known for its bright, deep pink, fully double flowers that appear in April. Each bloom of this rare cultivar is small, but composed of more than a hundred separate overlapping, pointed petals; the overall effect of a tree in flower is that of  multiple miniature pom-poms. ‘Kanzan’ usually requires no introduction, as it is a common street tree in Vancouver (and elsewhere), loved for its huge double pink flowers and bronzy emerging foliage. A large, normally imposing tree, our Nitobe specimens have been skillfully restrained through pruning and training. ‘Shogetsu’ (moonlight through pine trees) is noted for its small spreading crown but especially for its elegant, exceptionally long-stalked flowers composed of layered, lightest pink, fringe-edged petals. These burst open well after the leaves have emerged.  

The last cherry to flower in the Nitobe Memorial Garden is the remarkable ‘Shiro-fugen’. The blossoms of this cultivar emerge from plump pink buds at the same time as the leaves are unfolding bronze-purple, usually in early to mid-May. When fully open, the double flowers, which hang elegantly on remarkably long pedicels, are nearly pure white, and contrast with the dark foliage. The leaves eventually turn green. About the time one would normally expect the flowers to fall apart (about two weeks after emerging), they instead gradually become increasingly ruddy pink, to create yet another contrast with the now fully green leaves.

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