Flowering plum trees, which belong to the genus Prunus, are prized in many countries for the beauty and fleeting nature of their blooms. Native Americans use the plum fruits as a medical treatment for skin abrasions. Since the seedlings are hardy, gardeners can introduce and grow a flowering plum tree in their landscape with minimal maintenance.
Flowering plum trees can be either deciduous or evergreen. Most species are either ornamental or grown for their fruit, but some types, particularly evergreens, are suitable for ground cover or hedging.
Not all flowering plum varieties bear fruit and not all that do produce fruits that are edible for humans.
Varieties of flowering plum trees grow throughout Japan, China, Europe and the United States. Most species found in the United States flower in March.
Flowering plum trees have white or pink cup-shaped or saucer-shaped blossoms, usually 1/2 to 1 inch (1 to 2.5 cm) wide, that densely dot the branches in the spring. In some species the flowers will be double or semi-double, and not all will be pure white or pure pink. Some cultivars are white, tinged with pink, or vice versa.
Leaves are arranged in an alternating pattern on the branch. They are oval with serrated edges, a sharp tip and a green or purple hue. The leaves on evergreen plum species remain green over the winter.
For those varieties that bear fruit, the plum is usually red or purple with a pit in the center and a groove down one side.
Most flowering plum trees can grow as tall as 25 feet (8 meters). If pruned as a hedge or shrub, the height can be 8 feet (2.5 m) or less. Flowering plums generally have a round branch pattern - the horizontal spread can be as wide as the tree is tall - but some are more oval, with the width only about half the height.
Except for the beach plum, which can be planted in sand, flowering plum trees need non-clay soil of coarse or medium texture with a pH in the 5 to 7 range. They thrive with moderate watering and full sun or partial shade. They are generally hardy from Zones 4 through 9.
Pruning should be done in early summer (June) to help limit exposure to fungal diseases, which often spread in cool and wet weather. Remove deadwood, unhealthy-looking branches, crowded or crossed branches, and younger shoots growing outside of the shape you want the tree to have. Clean your pruning shears between trees with a weak bleach solution to prevent accidentally spreading infection from one tree to the next.
Flowering plum trees can attract bees, encourage birds to nest, and sustain local wildlife (deer are particularly fond of the foliage). Owners can harvest human-palatable fruit from midsummer to early fall. In private yards, flowering plums are often used as "green screens," or natural fences. But some varieties can be thorny, like the American plum, and those should not be used for screening near seating or paths.