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Don’t lose your weeping cherry!

Don’t lose your weeping cherry!

The Weeping Cherry (Prunus subhirtella pendula) is a very popular and beautiful flowering tree for the home landscape. The two most commonly available forms are the pink-flowering ‘Pendula Rosa’ with single flowers, and ‘Pendula Plena Rosa’ with double-petaled, longer-lasting flowers.

Weeping Cherry Tree with a “sucker.” Photo by John Chapin

These pink forms mature at around 25 inches tall and equally wide. Both are readily available every spring from area nurseries, garden centers and big box stores. Although technically fruit trees, neither produces noticeable or edible fruit, although sometimes small, hard “berries” form. Unlike cherries grown for their fruit, which have a relatively short lifespan, weeping cherries are not only fast-growing, but also long-lived as well as being more cold, heat and stress tolerant than other cherry tree species.

Weeping cherries were introduced to this country from the Far East in 1894, and are hardy in Central Indiana, rarely suffering winter injury. These trees are usually grafted on a six foot understock (trunk), but shorter grafts are occasionally available, which can add interest to the landscape when the weeping branches sweep the ground.

The problem homeowners will almost certainly encounter with their weeping cherry tree is that, at some point, a “sucker” (often more than one) will emerge from below the graft. There are four ways to identify this unwanted growth which, by the way, will always lead to serious problems, to be elaborated below.

The first is that a sucker will grow straight up and not gracefully bend to “weep”. It will grow vigorously, and emerge out of the weeping branches to continue up and up into the air. The second is also quite obvious as the leaves on a sucker will be much larger than those on the weeping branches. This is because the understock is simply a species of cherry grown for a strong root system, related to but not the same as the weeping cherry. Thirdly, when the suckers get some size and bloom, their blossoms are white and very noticeable since they bloom at the same time as the pink-flowering branches. Finally, Japanese Beetles love to munch on the suckers’ leaves, but ignore the weeping branches’ leaves.

If you find any suckers, they are easy to remove with hand pruners when young, but require lopers or even a saw when they get some size. Since they grow so rapidly, if not removed, suckers will quickly and massively outgrow the weeping graft (see photo).

Suckers will rob nourishment from the desirable form and shade the weeping branches, eventually resulting in the death of all of the pink-blooming branches. In just a few years, the homeowner will end up with a coarse, upright tree that is a Japanese Beetle magnet and with no landscape value.

So, be vigilant if you have a weeping cherry as part of your landscape. Remove any suckers you find and you will have a beautiful flowering tree to enjoy for many years to come.

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