The Nanking Cherry (Or Bush Cherry as it is also known) is still somewhat of a hidden gem in the Uk, rarely seen along the isles of your local garden centre.
Nevertheless, a Nanking Cherry bush is a wise investment for any gardener looking to grow their own food, especially if they’ve a taste for something a little different.
So, given our love for this criminally under-represented fruiting shrub we figured we’d give it the once over, taking a look at its history, wide-array of uses, growing potential and much more.
Let’s get to it.
Consider yourself a fan of the useful perennial plant? Take a look at our guide to our Favourite Useful Perennials here for some great picks for any outdoor space.
What is a Nanking Cherry?
Native to Central Asia, the Nanking Cherry (Prunus Tomentosa) first made its way to both British & US shores during the late 1800’s. It has since slowly crept its way around the world, introducing many an unsuspecting gardener to it’s abundant crops, hardy nature and uniquely delicious flavour.
Nanking Cherry trees were long cultivated among it’s home regions as a staple food source, however have yet to achieve much commercial success abroad – Primarily due to how poorly they stand up to modern storage & transportation processes.
More fun for us home growers I suppose.
Much of the Nanking Cherries success in traversing the world can likely be attributed to its durability. It’s far from a fussy plant, growing happily in the face of extreme temperature, drought, excess rainfall, poor soils and less than ideal light conditions.
In summary – The Nanking Cherry is tough as old boots.
It’s also quite a compact shrub, growing to a mature size of around 2-3m x 2m if left to its own devices. If pruned regularly however the Nanking Cherry tree can easily be maintained at a more manageable size, while still producing heavy yields of it’s delicious fruits.
The fruits themselves are generally a little smaller than a commercial cherry – akin to a large blueberry – while carrying the same deep scarlet colouring.
The taste varies from plant to plant due to there being no mainstream cultivated varieties as of yet, however they generally have a nice balance of Sweetness & Astringency in our experience. Perhaps a little sour to be eaten fresh regularly, yet ideal for using in other applications.
Fruits generally ripen between Late Summer and Early Autumn, staying fresh on the tree for around a fortnight once ripe. Be sure to use protective netting as the birds will happily pick your Nanking Cherry tree clean in no time at all!
Nanking Cherries are quite tender and easily bruised, which likely plays a big role in their lack of commercial success. Take care not to handle them too roughly when harvesting so as to preserve their firmness.
Nanking Cherries contain a range of beneficial nutrients. They are high in Antioxidants, Iron and Calcium, along with Vitamins A & C.
Abundant crops of fruit aside – The Nanking Cherry tree is a beautiful ornamental specimen in its own right – And good for your local pollinators to boot. Pink buds turn to masses of bright white flowers during Spring, smothering the Nanking Cherries branches and in turn attracting a whole range of beneficial pollinators to the veritable buffet of nectar on offer.
Fancy attracting more beneficial pollinators to your outdoor space? Take a look at our guide to Pollinator Friendly Perennials to keep those little helping hands coming back year after year.
Nanking Cherry Uses
The often quite tart taste of a Nanking Cherry may not be for everyone when eaten fresh (We love them), but trust us when we say they make a whole host of fantastic products once processed, with something there for everyone.
Jam, Wine, Baked Goods, Sauces & more – The Nanking Cherry substitutes well in just about any sour cherry recipe.
One thing to keep in mind – The seed of a Nanking Cherry is quite large, and removing these can be quite a time-consuming process, considering the ample yields you can expect from a mature bush.
To make life a little easier, boil or process these in bulk, straining your juice and separating the seeds before getting into your Jam / Pie / Wine-Making-Athon.
Nanking Cherry Propagation
Although many named varieties exist across parts of Russia and Asia, in the US & Europe much of the Nanking Cherry (Prunus Tomentosa) stock on sale is currently grown from seed. As such the traits of each bush is highly variable, with some tasting sweeter, some growing more vigorously, and some being that magical combination of all the best traits.
Propagation is straight-forward enough, either by seed or rooted-cuttings. Propagating via seed will of course lead to variations in all aspects of the plant. Whether you find this exciting or off-putting is a personal choice.
Nanking Cherry seeds have a three month cold stratification period, so be sure to pot up at the correct time of year or simply use the Refrigerator Method to cheat nature into premature germination.
Alternatively, if you know of a Nanking Cherry bush which you already know and love – Rooted cuttings will lead to a consistent clone of this particular individual.
Both Hardwood & Softwood cuttings have shown reasonable success for us, although it’s important to note that the taproots developed by these plants are unlikely to be as strong as those seen in their seedling counterparts.
Nanking Cherry Care & Planting Guide
Planting & Caring for a Nanking Cherry (Prunus Tomentosa) is pretty straight-forward. Their unfussy nature allows for a lot of wiggle room in planting position, soil-type etc that you wouldn’t get with most plants – Some fruiting bushes immediately come to mind as being much more particular.
Of course this doesn’t mean that we should just throw this beautiful Bush Cherry into any old forgotten spot of the garden. Take a little care in the placement of your Nanking Cherry and you’ll be sure to reap the rewards for many years to come.
The Nanking Cherry bush performs best in full / partial sun, with a rich, well-drained soil. As mentioned previously it will usually cope just fine in less than ideal conditions, however there are some things you can do to give your cherry bush a little helping hand during those vital early years.
- Mulch well with a thick layer of rich organic matter at least once a year. This will serve to nourish your Nanking Cherry bush as well as smother any weed competition in the direct vicinity.
- When planting use a Mycorrhizal Powder to speed along the microbial activity key to plant health. This powder is cheap and very simple to apply – Well worth the small investment.
- If planting as a stand-alone specimen rather than a hedging plant, you could utilise Beneficial Companion Plants to help combat the threat of pests, diseases and nutrient imbalances.
Pests & Diseases
Luckily for us bush cherry enthusiasts there are no known serious concerns when it comes to Nanking Cherry pests and diseases.
Planting Companion Plants is always a good idea to improve the overall health of a garden or orchard, however is more of an ‘Extra Mile’ kind of deal when it comes to this hardy little bush cherry.
Ideal as a stand-alone productive addition to any outdoor space. Also perfectly suited to integration into a hedging or windbreak system due to their vigorous growth and hardy nature.
Wait until flowering is complete before pruning. As with all trees in the Prunus family, Summer pruning is fine in moderation, however any heavy pruning work should be saved for Autumn / Winter when the bush cherry (Prunus Tomentosa) is dormant.
Nanking Cherry bushes have been known to live up to 50 years with proper care, however this is certainly not representative of the norm.
Up to 25 years can be expected as a general rule of thumb, however many people report their Nanking Cherries dying far earlier than this, within about ten years.
There is little concrete information as to the reason for these early die-offs and further research is needed to assess what we can do to ensure a long, happy life for this cracking little bush cherry.
And there we have it, a comprehensive overview of everything you’ll need to know before diving head first into the wonderful world of the Nanking Cherry.
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Have a great day.