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Originally published Friday, March 21, 2014 at 10:02 AM

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Hardy alternatives to flowering cherries? Dogs and crabs

Flowering cherry trees struggle in our climate. They suffer from brown rot and cherry bark tortrix.


Special to The Seattle Times

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THERE’S NOTHING more evocative than an ornamental cherry tree in full flower against a stormy spring sky. Spreading branches thick with fragile, pale blossoms, an eddy of flowers blowing around like pastel confetti. Fragrant flowers overhead and underfoot as crushed petals litter the ground. A haiku in tree form.

Think of the quad at the University of Washington and the Japanese Garden at the Washington Park Arboretum abloom with baby-pink froth the last week of March and into early April. Those weeks are known simply as “cherry blossom season” in Washington, D.C., when the Tidal Basin’s 3,700 Yoshino (Prunus x yedoensis) cherry trees put on their annual show.

Unfortunately, flowering cherry trees struggle in our climate. They suffer from brown rot and cherry bark tortrix. Limbs die, leaves wither, trees decline. At one time, 22 percent of the trees in Seattle’s planting strips were one kind of prunus or another. City arborist Nolan Rundquist says the city is working to remove the sickest cherry trees, especially winter-blooming Prunus autumnalis. How sad that one of the few trees to flower during the coldest months of the year is the most susceptible to rot. You see sick and dying specimens all over town.

So maybe it’s time to trade out poetry for practicality. When we plant a tree, we live with it for many years. Other flowering trees are showy spring bloomers and healthy, too.

Perhaps the most obvious choices are crabapples and dogwoods, both of which weather our rainy, chilly springs with aplomb.

Crabapples are sturdy, small and offer fall color as well as spring flower. They sport glossy berries that birds love. And while their bloom isn’t as magically gauzy as that of cherry trees, it comes in shades from white to red. Malus ‘Sutyzam,’ known as the Sugar Tyme crab, has pink buds that open to fragrant white flowers. It’s tough enough for a street tree, and the flowers are sweetly scented.

If your taste runs toward more color, check out Malus ‘Strawberry Parfait.’ With its red buds, intensely pink flowers and foliage that comes on purple before it turns green, this tree is a study in drama. Both of these crabapples are Great Plant Picks, chosen for their superior disease resistance in our climate. Seattle tree expert Arthur Lee Jacobson suggests ‘Indian Magic’ and ‘Red Jewel’ crabapples as desirable substitutes for flowering cherries.

Dogwoods are a more varied lot; some grow very large, others, like Cornus kousa, bloom later into summer. Beware our native dogwood, Cornus nuttallii, and trees bred from it, because they’re susceptible to the disease anthracnose.

But a couple of earlier-blooming, disease-resistant cultivars make satisfying replacements for flowering cherries. Cornus ‘Eddie’s White Wonder’ and Cornus ‘Venus’ both have large, cream-colored flowers. Dogwoods have the advantage of looking more naturalistic than the fluffier crabs and cherries, so are easier to slip harmoniously into Northwest landscapes.

Whatever tree you buy, be sure you give it a good start in life and the conditions (sun or shade, good soil, adequate space and water) that suit it best. If you have to give up a cherry tree, you want its alternate to make it up to you in robust health.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.



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