A Happy Plant “Volunteer”—the Nanking Cherry

Nebraska Extension Master Gardeners are individuals who are passionate about gardening and sharing research-proven solutions.  Potential volunteers apply and go through an interview to be selected as an intern.  They will receive over 48 hours of initial education from experts in soils, botany, landscape design and more and give back 40 hours of volunteer service to their counties annually.  Over 200 active Extension Master Gardeners in Douglas-Sarpy counties donate over 14,000 hours of their time yearly.

This week we asked our Master Gardener volunteers to write blogs for GRO Big Red and these are their articles.  Many thanks to the Master Gardeners for their willingness to learn and give back.

If you are curious about the program or would like to know more, join us November 14th at 6:30 pm at 8015 W. Center Road in Omaha or November 16th at 1:00 pm at Sump Memorial Library in Papillion to learn more about the Extension Master Gardener program in Douglas-Sarpy counties.

–Scott, Kathleen, John, Jonathan, John

A Happy Plant “Volunteer”—the Nanking Cherry

By Master Gardener C.J. Hohman

Over the years (never mind how many), I have met innumerable volunteers, working for organizations large and small. These people offer up immense numbers of hours of work. But I’d like to talk about another kind of volunteer: that errant plant in the pot of balloon flower (or whatever) I just purchased from my neighborhood nursery. Usually these strays are weeds, with the occasional interesting thing like a moss or a liverwort. Sometimes when I cannot identify the plant, I will grow it, just to see if it is something worthwhile. I have gotten lots of weeds, a white butterfly bush and pink diascia, for instance. But once, I hit the jackpot.

I stuck the twig—for it possibly was woody—into a spot of wilderness in the back yard. (I call those places the “native area” although I know I am not fooling anyone.) I ignored the little plant for several years, periodically checking to see if it had been overrun by more vigorous neighbors, as usually happens when I don’t plan my moves. Eventually, I realized that the small unknown was a multi-stemmed shrub or tree. Then, one year, it had small (about ¾ inch diameter), pink buds that opened to fragrant white blooms. Hmmm…I did not pay serious attention for a couple of more years, then I saw, following the blossom…as so often happens with nature… fruit! The “berries” were bright red, oval to round, approximately ¼ to ½ inch across, with large (proportionally) stones. They looked like mini-cherries.

I finally got serious about identifying this shrub, which by then was 4 feet tall, 6 or 8 feet wide and possibly 10 years old. No sense rushing into things. My research led me to the conclusion that it was/is a Nanking (or Manchu) cherry (Prunus tomentosa). What sound instincts I have …sometimes…eventually! In early to mid-June, it bears a profuse, reliable crop of tart, shiny, scarlet cherries. The seed is so large compared to the amount of flesh that I don’t want to use them to make jelly, jam or pies, but between the birds and the grandchildren, nary a one is wasted, although neighboring plants are laid to waste (by the children, not the rockin’ robins). Besides the fruit, this wide (up to 15 feet), relatively short (6 to 10 feet tall) shrub has a unique shape, sprawling and picturesque; wonderful exfoliating cinnamon-to brown-colored, shiny bark; pleasant light yellow fall color; and abundant early blooms that attract pollinators. The leaves are elliptical, simple and alternate, dull dark green in summer, pubescent, serrated and hairy on the undersurface.

Nanking Cherry exfoliating bark CJ Hohman

Nanking cherry is a native of central Asia, so does well in our area of weather extremes, growing in USDA Zones 3-7. Because of its dense twiginess, it can be used as a hedge or windbreak addition and makes good wildlife habitat. It prefers full sun and well-drained soil but can tolerate drought, partial shade and almost any soil type. Two plants are usually recommended for cross-pollination, but my shrub flowers and fruits without a friend. I have not noticed any pests that bother the bush. There are no named cultivars, so propagation is by cuttings or seeds, making the flavor vary. The Nanking does sucker, but it is a bush, after all. I rarely see a seedling from dropped fruit.

In the place that I have the shrub planted—obviously right plant, wrong spot—the leaves are a deeper green than surrounding plants, making nice background contrast. Since it is sited poorly (it’s too close to the fence and a blue spruce, making access difficult and the area much too small for the cherry’s wide spread), I have neglected its pruning. I decided the fruit is too popular and the peeling bark so cool that I am going to try to re-train, rather than remove, as I considered this summer. This points out once again the importance of identifying before planting. But all in all, I’d say “Give me more volunteers!”

Nanking cherry fall color CJ Hohman.jpg


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