Rather than leaving a hot, dry or sandy soil area of your landscape bare, consider planting the ornamental flowering shrub called the western sand cherry (Prunus besseyi). Tolerant of brutal winter cold and winds, and summer heat and drought, this shrub provided early pioneers to the American Great Plains a source of edible summertime fruits for jams and pastries. Grow sand cherry in USDA winter hardiness zones 3 through 6.
Western sandy cherry is native to the Great Plains of the United States, in sandy prairies, on woodland edges, and along shallow riverbanks. The native range extends from central Montana to western Minnesota and Iowa and then westward to north-central Kansas and extreme northeastern Colorado.
Originally, American botanist Liberty Hyde Bailey first described a native cherry tree in Nebraska in the 1890s that he named as Prunus pumila. Shortly thereafter, Bailey encountered a similar plant but was much smaller, a bush, that had broader and larger leaves. He also scientifically described this species, naming it Prunus besseyi, honoring University of Nebraska professor Charles Bessey. Sometimes this plant is written with the scientific name Prunus pumila var. besseyi, which remains an outdated but valid synonym today.
Western sand cherry develops a rounded, multi-stemmed structure that can be irregular to spreading in habit. It matures to a height of 4 to 5 feet and width of 5 to 6 feet.
Pure white, 1/2-inch-sized flowers line the bare branches of the shrub in mid- to late spring before the leaves emerge. The leaves mature to broad tapering ovals with tiny teethed edges. They are shiny green to gray-green in color and become red in autumn before falling away. Flowers that were pollinated by bees in spring develop into 3/4-inch-diameter cherries, ready for harvest in midsummer. These fruits are edible but sweet and tart, first yellow in color but ripening to purplish-black.
Dr. Michael Dirr, noted American woody plant expert, says that the western sand cherry is "useful in inhospitable hot, dry conditions" in a landscape. It may be used as an informal hedge or screen or as a singular specimen plant. Songbirds relish the fruits and seeds as food. Even if birds rob the shrub of fruits before humans have a chance to harvest them, this shrub provides an attractive flower display in spring, especially prized by garden designers in cold winter regions where spring flowering shrubs are not so easily grown.