The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Nanking Cherry: Prunus tomentosa

The Nanking Cherry showed up on a list of edible hedge species, but I didn't know if the plant was actually a cherry botanically and (more importantly) what it tasted like.  Uncommon Fruits Worthy of Attention, as usual, cut right to the chase. 

Is the Nanking Cherry a cherry?  Nanking Cherry (Prunus tomentosa) is in the same genus as cherries, plums, and peaches, but is a different species than either sweet cherries (P. avium) or sour cherries (P. cerasus).  This means that your Nanking Cherries can't be pollinated by either of these species, just as sweet cherries won't pollinate sour cherries and vice versa.

Does the Nanking Cherry taste like a cherry?  Flavor of the Nanking Cherry seems to be extremely variable, probably due to the fact that American nurseries grow the plants from seed.  In stark contrast, the Nanking Cherry is the most common garden fruit in the Russian Far East, where many named varieties exist.  Some varieties taste like tart cherries and others like sweet cherries (though a quick search of the internet suggests that the former flavor predominates among unnamed varieties in the U.S.)

Nanking Cherry bushHow do I plant my Nanking Cherry?  Since Nanking Cherries are shrubs or small trees reaching between nine and fifteen feet tall and wide, they should be planted about fifteen feet apart.  Alternatively, they can be planted four feet apart and trimmed into a hedge.  Be sure to plant more than one Nanking Cherry for cross-pollination.  Place them in an area with full sun and well-drained soil.

Where can I grow the Nanking Cherry?  They can be planted in zones 3 to 6, which makes them a good choice in more northern areas where traditional cherries can't be grown.

How do I propagate the Nanking Cherry?  If you don't mind the plants not breeding true, seeds are easiest (and will grow a long, drought-resistant taproot, absent in plants grown from cuttings.)  Remove the seeds from the pulp, air dry slightly, then stratify for three months.  Seedlings bear by the third year.  Alternatively, take softwood cuttings when the fruit is ripening, treat the base with rooting hormone, then keep the cuttings under a mist.  Or take 8 to 12 inch hardwood cuttings of one year old wood, planting in well-drained soil in the fall or spring.

Why is the Nanking Cherry a permaculture favorite?  Permaculture emphasizes making maximum use of your gardening space.  Since the Nanking Cherry is a shrub, it can fit into parts of the garden where a standard cherry couldn't grow.  Using the Nanking Cherry as an edible hedge plant has forest pasture implications as well.

Are you growing them?  I'd like to find a named variety (or someone's backyard shrub) that tastes like a sweet cherry, but in the meantime I bought a couple of seedlings to get us started.  If you've tried them and have tasty plants, I'd love to trade for some seeds or cuttings!

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This post is part of our Uncommon Fruits Worthy of Attention lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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You've eaten these. I planted them alongside the tiny creel which ran between the house and barn at the farm. They produced for 2 or 3 years.
Comment by Errol Wed Apr 7 14:57:23 2010
What happened after two or three years?
Comment by anna Wed Apr 7 15:45:54 2010
They quit producing and several of them died.
Comment by Errol Wed Apr 7 17:50:55 2010
Odd that I've eaten them --- I just don't remember! I wonder if they really were Nanking Cherry --- do you remember the name, or just that they were a bush cherry? There seem to be several species of bush cherry out there. Where'd you get them?
Comment by anna Wed Apr 7 20:09:02 2010
They were definitely Nanking Cherries.
Comment by Errol Wed Apr 7 21:58:06 2010
I have a couple of these growing on my property. Didn't know what they were until now. This year was the first time I noticed that there were actually berries. I posted pictures here:
Comment by Daphne Wed Jul 14 20:29:31 2010
What do you think of the flavor of the fruits?
Comment by anna Wed Jul 14 20:32:12 2010
I have two 2-3 yr plants side by side . About 5 ft tall they flower each spring but I have yet to see any berries. Any one have a suggestion?
Comment by Jeff Sat Oct 30 15:27:38 2010
I don't have enough personal experience yet to give you any real answers, Jeff, but here are a few thoughts. Are you sure they're both the same species and bloom at the same time? If either of those are off, you won't get pollination and thus won't get fruits. Also, do you tend to get cold snaps while the cherries are in bloom? That will wipe out the developing fruits.
Comment by anna Sat Oct 30 19:56:35 2010

Previous post: 2year plants I have two 2-3 yr plants side by side . About 5 ft tall they flower each spring but I have yet to see any berries. Any one have a suggestion? Comment by Jeff — Saturday afternoon, October 30th, 2010

they flower at the same time and should be the same species. I ordered 6 plants from gurneys I planted 3 plants in one hole and 3 in another. They are side by side and get plenty of sunlight . I live in zone 7 in Virginia close to Virginia beach. Are these plants self pollinators?

Comment by Jeff Sun Oct 31 14:35:12 2010
You're supposed to have two bushes for pollination, but it sounds like you've got that (and I can't imagine you getting cold snaps that kill the flowers in zone 7.) I'm stumped!
Comment by anna Sun Oct 31 17:26:09 2010

I grew up with NanKing Cherries in our wind-break (shelterbelt) in W. Kansas. They were the first plant to meet the northwind, in a wind-break 6 tree-rows deep, helping to gradually send the wind over and above the house.

They were extremely beautiful in the spring, while in bloom. Then the extended family made a ad hoc holiday of coming to pick the cherries for jellies and pies when the cherries were ripened.

They reseed themselves.

I moved to the other end of the state. About five years ago, I planted them out of sentiment for the plant. In this day and age of high food prices, I also found it necessary to make my yard a food producer, which thus included NanKing cherries. In late summer, I broadcast the seeds on empty lots nearby that seldom got mowed. Will be interesting to see what comes up.

Stratification was my only question. They indeed need to stratify. Anyone needing un-stratified seeds, notify (not my real name, lol, and a junk email address). I will eventually get to you if you title it "NanKing Cherries", but it may take time since I rarely check that address.

Comment by Optional Sat May 7 17:42:58 2011
Thank you so much for posting such a great first hand experience, and such a kind offer! I went ahead and bought a few bushes, so will see if they live up to my expectations. I've heard that since Nanking cherries are usually grown from seed, you can get quite variable quality, and you clearly have some with great genetics, so if ours don't pan out, I might be emailing and begging for seeds. :-)
Comment by anna Sun May 8 11:10:39 2011

Okay, I have to admit to cheating, as I live in Japan, so we certainly should be able to grow Nanking Cherries here. They are known as Yusura Ume in Japan (the word Ume being generally used to describe a plum, not a cherry) and we originally got our single plant about three years ago because my (Japanese) wife remembered eating the fruit from a tree in their garden as a child. For the first couple of years we had some blossom and a small number of fruit, but this year (after an especially cold and long-lasting winter) it absolutely exploded into blossom and has been heavily laden with fruit (until today, when we picked them all). Apart from anything else, it was extremely beautiful, both when in flower and when laden with the bright red fruit. The fruit themselves were somewhat astringent to begin with (before they'd turned completely red), which may account for some reports of "middling" flavour. The ripe fruit have a very pleasant sweet/sour balance with just the slightest hint of an astringent aftertaste. While I wouldn't rate them at the same level as a good cherry, they are very tasty when eaten fresh from the tree. We've picked just under 4Kg (8lb) from that single, 1.8 metre (6ft) high tree and I happened upon this site when I was searching for information on how viable propagation from seeds is (seeing as we now have several hundred of them :-) ).

Comment by John Tue Jun 21 02:00:14 2011
Thank you so much for sharing that vivid description! I almost felt like I was there eating the Nanking Cherries with you.
Comment by anna Tue Jun 21 07:28:42 2011

I live in the New England area of Northern NSW, Australia. About 18 months ago my wife and I bought a house with a fabulous garden and this summer we noticed a bush up the back laden with red berries.. Eventually tracked down this website and it has allowed me to identify the bush as a Nanking Cherry. I contacted the old lady (91yo) from whom we bought the property. She had owned it for 50 years and was a very keen gardener. She had never seen fruit on it in the past but seemed to recall that it was some kind of cherry so that has confirmed the identification. My wife is in the kitchen as I write this post boiling up the approximately 1kg (2.2lbs)we retrieved from the bush an hour ago. It is mid summer here right now. We are at about 3000ft altitude, get cold winters by Australian standards and moderate rainfall 900mm (about 36 inches) per year. Another bush on the property that we will make jam (or something) from is a pineapple guave (feijoa).

Comment by Tim W Sun Jan 1 01:28:20 2012
I'm so glad we could help you identify the fruits. I'm jealous --- I'd love to find I didn't know about edibles growing in my yard! :-)
Comment by anna Sun Jan 1 10:39:11 2012

Please forgive me for forgetting that I had written something here and made that offer.

Now that the cherries are being picked, I have seeds to send. Um, I don't know how to make that available to you. So you might suggest something to me.

And Anna, I never really concerned myself with the quality of the plant or species. I was just super-glad to have the plant around me. I find that they later you pick the berry, the more and better flavor there is. So I tell people that come briefly to help me pick them, that they need to pick only the darker red cherries, and that they should feel softer and plumper than the less ripe cherries. This year, I am finding that they north plants ripened first, then the west plants, and then the east plants (have noj plants to the south). The north plants had a better flavor and were bigger cherries, while that might be influenced by a variety of different reasons.

I now live in a unique microenvironment near a fair-sized river, where the temp of the river influences my growing seasons. My seasons for any flower or plant in the spring are at least two weeks behind the plants in my area. In the fall, I am two weeks or more later in freezing temps.

Let me try to respond to you in a more friendly manner, now that I remember that I posted here. Please forgive me.

Comment by Favorite Childhood plant Fri May 18 14:49:18 2012
Favorite childhood plant --- Good information about when to harvest the cherries for best flavor! We planted three shrubs a year or two ago and are hoping for fruits soon so we can try them out ourselves. So I probably shouldn't take you up on your kind offer of seeds, but I appreciate it!
Comment by anna Fri May 18 20:01:14 2012
A funny thing, memory. The nankings at the farm only pore three years before the bushes died.
Comment by Errol Sat May 19 08:30:07 2012
I changed that "p" to a "B". I swear I did.
Comment by Errol Sat May 19 09:56:21 2012
Daddy --- I got the gist, typo aside. :-) Do you remember what killed the bushes?
Comment by anna Sat May 19 10:16:16 2012
They were just very short lived, according to what I read about them.
Comment by Errol Sat May 19 14:36:09 2012
Daddy --- Drat! And here we missed a year of production with our blackberry winter....
Comment by anna Sat May 19 19:16:54 2012
I just came out to Boise, Id and have been helping my mother with this elaberat garden she has gotten with the house she bought and discoverd these cherries. she actually has 4 cherry trees 1 bing 1 sour and 2 of these (nanking) trees. and they have a VERY SWEET fruit. but we dont know what to do with them other then eat them, it is such a tease that they produce such a small fruit but they taste so good. but both of these trees have been here for 18 years+ and we discovered a small on another section of the garden. I hope theses plants dont die off they are so big and love the fruit off them. but what are some things that they can be used for.
Comment by Eric VanKleeck Sun Jul 1 20:21:16 2012
Eric --- Sounds like you lucked into a winning variety! Ours have yet to bear, so I can't give you any cooking tips, but I'd think you'd be able to use them in any recipe that calls for cherries. Just send them through a foley mill to take out all those pits....
Comment by anna Mon Jul 2 16:41:04 2012

We have some of these cherries that are also more sweet than tart. We love them when we can get them before the robins do. (in Wisconsin) They grow as shrub, not tree, and easily sprout from seeds, so we always have seedlings. We wouldn't mind sending some if you are still interested.

Comment by Mary & Dennis Sat Jul 18 10:32:40 2015
Is there any chance my Prunus Besseyi / Sand Cherry bush will pollinate my Nanking cherry? I don't have a 2nd Nanking.
Comment by Scott Pi Sat Apr 30 18:08:17 2016
I have 3 hedges I have been growing now for five years.they are still yet to put out any blooms never mind berries.they are very healthy and I maintain them pruning every early spring and after a the first hard frost.I keep them about 3 feet high by 2 feet wide.I live in southern Rhode island in the northeast
Comment by Jeff Fri Jul 6 21:17:38 2018
I live in western Montana and have a couple bushes in my yard this year my berries were so heavy the branches were almost breaking. They are also nice and sweet to eat off the branch. I would be happy to send seeds and I just made some great syrup :)
Comment by Nicole Sun Jul 26 23:09:59 2020

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