Blossoming in spring with their production of copious pale pink flowers, both the Weeping Higan cherry (Prunus x subhirtella "Pendula") and the Japanese flowering cherry (Prunus serrulata) grace gardens in temperate regions worldwide. Providing ample space and sunlight permits these trees to form the fullest shapes and best flowering displays. Fall leaf color develops much more intensely on Japanese flowering cherries.
Originating in Japan, the Higan cherry demonstrates strong tolerance to both summer heat and winter cold and is appropriate to grow in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 through 8. It was developed by crossing Fuji cherry (Prunus incisa) with Prunus pendula. The Japanese flowering cherry hails from a larger area: Japan, Korea and northeastern China. Interestingly, this species is slightly less tolerant of cold and much less tolerant of summer heat, and is best grown in USDA Zones 5 to 8. It also goes by the name "village cherry" or "Sato-zakura," since many of the varieties extant reveal ornamental qualities selected and displayed from different towns or provinces.
Maturing to 40 feet tall and 40 feet wide, with drooping branches, the weeping Higan cherry displays pink or occasionally white blossoms in mid-spring before the tapering oval leaves emerge. In autumn these lustrous green leaves turn yellowy. Japanese flowering cherry, by contrast, grows 20 to 35 feet tall and as wide, with rounded to vase-shaped canopies. Also flowering in mid-spring or a bit earlier, its pink flowers open before the pale green to bronze-kissed new leaves unfurl. The leaves turn a rustic bronze-red in fall. Sometimes small cherry fruits develop on both these ornamental trees, but nothing of substantial quality or display.
Both species of cherries need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight daily to develop into well-shaped trees and for abundant flower production. Full sun is ideal, but in hot summer climates some shade during the heat of midday benefits trees. Plant in any non-alkaline (pH less than 7.2), moist, fertile soil with good drainage. The weeping Higan cherry tolerates winter cold and summer heat better than the Japanese flowering cherry. Weeping Higan also grows much better in unamended heavy clay soils, once the roots are established.
Many pests and diseases inflict all members of the Prunus genus, including ornamental cherry trees. Leaf caterpillars, borers, scale and leafhoppers may inflict trees during their lifetimes, and viruses and fungal diseases cause harm when soils remain too wet or ambient humidity high during the growing season. Wounds on trunks or branches become easy avenues for fungal spores to enter the tree. The Japanese flowering cherry remains a short-lived tree in the landscape because of diseases; expect it to live healthfully no more than 10 to 20 years before decline. Conversely, the Weeping Higan lives easily for decades, making it the perfect multi-generational tree.
Weeping Higan cherry usually bears a plant label at the nursery reading variety "Pendula." Much variation exists among trees given this name. Some individuals bear slightly different flower colors or develop many more weeping branches or a rounded, mounding mature habit. The variety "Pendula Plena Rosea" displays double pink flowers, their extra petal rows in blossoms making them look fuller and more pompom-like.
Japanese flowering cherry varieties include four in particular of note. Perhaps the most famous is the selection known as "Kwanzan," a name synonymous with "Kanzan" and "Sekiyama." A white-flowering choice is "Mt. Fuji," also known as "Shirotae." Two additional varieties are "Amanogawa" and "Shirofugen."
While Weeping Higan cherry trees gain fame from their graceful weeping habits, they lend themselves best as singular specimen trees in a spacious lawn or wide, uncrowded garden bed with ground covers. It looks stunning at water's edge. Japanese flowering cherries, although short-lived in comparison, attain more upright, traditional tree shapes and work better as a street tree, alley row or small lawn tree.