Cherry Trees vs. Cherry Blossoms: What’s The Difference?
Not sure what's different or similar between cherry trees or cherry blossoms? While one tree produces edible fruit, the other is strictly ornamental. In this article, gardening expert Madison Moulton examines what's different and what's the same between these two trees.
Who can resist a juicy, fresh cherry? Very few people. That’s why they’re ideal for growing in gardens. Cherry trees are one of the highest-yielding edible fruit trees. Although they take several years to produce their first fruits, the following years will be filled with a bounty of cherries from just one tree.
Cherry blossoms are also an incredibly popular tree, but for different reasons. The name instantly brings images of tall trees completely covered in blush blossoms, a spectacle that’s hard to resist. These trees are a staple in Japan but have become popular all over the world for their beauty.
These two trees share part of their name, cherry, but that’s not all they share. At the same time, they are not exactly the same tree as some may assume. Let’s break down what separates these two trees, what is common between them, and why you should be obsessed with them both.
Size at Maturity
Up to 25 Feet
Up to 40 Feet
For starters, cherries and cherry blossoms share part of their names because they come from the same genus – Prunus. This genus not only encompasses both of these trees, but other edible fruit trees like plums, peaches, apricots, and even almonds.
Cherries and cherry blossoms are therefore quite closely related. While they share a genus, each one has different varieties and cultivars. For example, sour cherries are P. cerasus, sweet cherries are P. avium. Cherry blossoms are made up of many varieties, like P. serrulata or P. speciosa, also known as ornamental cherries.
Cherries are cultivated and hybridized for their fruits. The focus is on yield, flavor, disease resistance, and other factors that influence the growth of edible plants. In other words, those trees of the Prunus genus labeled ‘cherry trees’ put all their focus on producing delicious fruits, with less focus placed on ornamental qualities like flowers.
The opposite is true for cherry blossoms. These trees do still produce small fruits, but all the attention is placed on the flowers. They are cultivated for their beauty and hybridized to produce the best-looking flowers over the longest time. The fruits are edible but don’t taste great and normally aren’t eaten, because the focus was pulled from the fruits to the flowers.
Essentially, both trees are related and produce similar flowers and fruits. However, cherry trees are grown for their tasty fruits, while cherry blossom trees are grown for their beautiful flowers, and neither can compete with the other in the opposing category.
For most of the year, both trees look quite similar. Their leaf shapes and the structure of the branches are about the same. They do differ slightly in size, depending on the variety. Cherry blossom trees are usually taller, reaching over 30 feet in height, while cherry trees remain around 15-20 feet tall. Despite this difference in height, their crown spread is similar, around 20 feet.
These trees are easiest to differentiate during the flowering season. Cherries produce short-lived flowers that quickly turn into fruits. These flowers typically have a couple of petals and come in white or blush. Once developed, the tree will be covered in groupings of deep red or purple cherries that are snipped of at the stem for harvesting.
Cherry blossoms flower for a few weeks longer and display spectacular variety in their blooms. Each tree is crossed and selected to produce the best-looking flowers – in Japan alone, there are over 200 cultivars, some say as high as 600. Cherry blossom trees display flowers of many different shapes and colors. Some are yellow or green as opposed to the common pink. Others, like Kikuzakura, have more than 100 petals on one flower.
An easy way to tell the difference between the two when purchasing your tree is to look at the label. If it is labeled ornamental, it’s a cherry blossom tree. If it’s labeled edible, it’s a cherry tree.
While these two trees may share some similarities when it comes to their name, they also share a few other conditions, including their climate, and optimal growing conditions. Let’s take a look at these two trees and see how they differ, and what similarities they share.
Both trees grow in similar mild climates, preferring cool weather to extreme heat. Sweet cherries grow well in USDA Zones 5-8 and sour cherries 4-6. Cherry blossoms typically grow best in USDA Zones 5-8, almost matching the zones of cherry trees exactly.
However, climate is more important to consider for cherries than it is cherry blossoms. Cherry trees require cold temperatures for a certain amount of hours to trigger fruiting. The amount of time depends on the variety. Some need around 900 hours of exposure below 45F, while others will produce fruits with just 400. But no matter the amount, periods of cold are essential for these trees.
Cherry blossom trees are slightly more forgiving. While they also grow in the same zones, there is more leeway in the conditions as the focus is not on the fruits. Fruit production requires strict conditions, whereas ornamental trees still provide value if not in the ideal conditions for most of the year.
These trees differ slightly in terms of their lighting requirements. Cherries require full sun for most of the day to give the tree enough energy to produce flowers and fruits. Even planting in the wrong spot where it is occasionally shaded by a wall or another tree can wreak havoc on your harvest.
Cherry blossom trees, on the other hand, have the ability to adapt far better. To get the most out of your ornamental tree, the most flowers, in other words, full sun is best. However, cherry blossom trees will still grow and survive in partial shade conditions. You may not get as many flowers as possible, but you will still get a stunning display if you need to brighten up a partly shady corner.
Trees in the Prunus genus, especially cherries, are quite susceptible to root rot. They need their soil to be incredibly well-draining to prevent any potential damage. The soil should also be fertile and amended with plenty of compost to aid nutrition and water retention.
Both trees prefer soil on the acidic side, but won’t be too fussed about pH. Different varieties are tolerant of different soil types. Some grow well in clay or sandy soils, while others need the gold standard of loamy, rich soil to thrive.
No matter which tree you choose, always start it off in the right soil to ensure a strong establishment and healthy growth moving forward.
Watering requirements for cherry trees and cherry blossom trees are largely the same. These trees are not particularly thirsty and will normally survive on rainfall alone in higher-than-average rainfall areas.
In dryer seasons, they may need an extra deep watering or two, but don’t need consistently moist soil to survive – in fact, they prefer the opposite. Some varieties are even considered drought-tolerant, needing less water than others. Check your specific variety to determine their water needs and try to match the conditions to the rainfall in your area to limit water usage.
If you live in a drier region, apply a thick layer of mulch around the base of your tree. Straw, leaves, or compost work well and break down into the soil to improve nutrient density over time. The mulch will retain moisture in the soil, limiting your need to water. Plus, it will keep weeds down at the same time, saving you time and an extra task later on.
Ease of Growth
This is probably the place where these two trees differ the most. Neither are considered difficult trees to care for – no more so than any other edible tree, but one is fussier than the other one.
Cherry trees require a little maintenance to ensure a successful harvest. Firstly, you need to provide the right conditions for growth and maintain those conditions to ensure fruiting. Secondly, you need to monitor issues like blossom drop or manage pesky birds that find your fruits just as delicious as you do, in order to protect your harvest.
On top of that, cherry trees are susceptible to several pests and diseases that could ruin your harvest or kill the entire tree. Various caterpillars, mites, and beetles are known to attack cherry trees. Similarly, diseases like leaf spot, canker, or brown rot are quite common and need to be heavily monitored and managed.
As the fruits are grown to be edible, any old pest and disease management plan won’t be enough. Every product you use has to be food-safe and promote the health of the tree for later seasons.
Cherry blossoms are not as difficult. As you’re not looking to grow the tree for the fruits, there is far less effort involved in care, as a little change in routine here and there won’t affect the blooming of the plant.
If you do encounter any problems with pests and diseases, which can also be common for ornamental cherry trees, there are more management options available to you. There is less worry about what products you use or which branches you prune as there is no harvest to consider for later in the season and future seasons.
Both trees are considered short-lived. This, as most factors do, depends on the variety. Cherries are likely to live around 20 years, with ornamental cherries living slightly longer. Many factors can influence the life span of the tree, including growing conditions and pests and diseases.
With the correct care, cherry blossoms will live around 35 to 40 years. There are plenty of exceptions to this rule, including the famous Jindai Zakura that’s been going strong for over 2,000 years.
If you’re looking for a long-term tree, whether edible or ornamental, opt for a long-living variety and ensure you provide the right care to keep it healthy for as long as possible.
Cherry trees and cherry blossom trees are not the same things. They are not totally different, either. Each one has a focus on what they do best, either flowering or fruiting. Cherry trees are also pickier in terms of care, but they will reward you with delicious fruits for your efforts.
The blossoms of cherry trees, although pretty, cannot come close to the carefully selected and hybridized flowers of the cherry blossom tree. Essentially, to get the best of both worlds, plant both trees in your garden for spectacular floral displays and tasty fruits.