On a dreary, grey day in the middle of winter the flowering apricot will burst into bloom, filling the air with a sweet, cinnamon fragrance while sending bees into a feeding frenzy. It is the one tree I would never want to garden without, and I hope, after reading this, you will be inspired to grow a few too.
Prunus mume is an Asian native tree with deep cultural roots and a fascinating history. Commonly referred to as the “Chinese Plum” or “Japanese Apricot,” this deciduous flowering tree is part of the Roseaceae family. If those common names seem confusing, it is because this distinct tree species is related to both the plum and the apricot, though it is more closely related to the latter.
This winter flowering tree originated in south China around the Yangtze River more than 3,000 years ago. It was later introduced to Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam where it naturalized along stream sides and forested slopes. Thriving in its native region with elevations of 5,000-10,000’ the flowering apricot grows best in regions with 4 seasons. In North America, they are ideal candidates for gardens in zones 6-8. They need freezing temperatures to go through a proper dormancy and struggle to survive in tropical climates.
The flower, often referred to as the “plum blossom,” has captivated the hearts of people for centuries and remains a beloved subject in the traditional East Asian painting and poetry. The late winter blooms symbolize beauty, hope, and perseverance during a time of struggle. The fruits are used in traditional medicine, as well as consumed for their sweet juice. Additionally, the small fruits can be pickled or used as a flavoring for alcohol. This is not the apricot you see in the grocery stores. Those larger fruits, with dense edible flesh, are from Prunus armeniaca a distant cousin of the Chinese plum.
In the landscape, this is an excellent specimen tree with a rounded habit, reaching about 20’ tall by 20’ wide in a decade. It is a vigorous grower when sited in a sunny location with evenly moist, well-drained, acidic soil. The addition of organic matter is recommended to ensure an abundant flower show, especially in areas with sandy soil, like my yard. Over the past ten years I have added about 1” of compost annually around the root zone of each of my trees which has led to healthy development and glorious blooms.
Because it is worth repeating, this is a tree best suited for FULL SUN. Even the smallest amount of shade will reduce the bloom set and growth habit. In my zone 7 former tobacco field garden I have 5 varieties of flowering apricots growing in various exposures. My best performers are in full sun all day, even throughout the heat of the summer. Given this condition, supplemental irrigation may be needed during the hottest, driest months of the year.
It is generally recommended that you prune plants in the Roseaceae family while they are actively growing to reduce their suckering habit. This is true for flowering apricots, though I still prune in winter when the branches are covered in buds so I can bring them inside and enjoy the fragrance. Focus on pruning inner branches to enable positive airflow through the dense rounded canopy, as this will help reduce insects and disease problems. https://youtu.be/mSXKUq9hgAU
They are susceptible to black knot, a cankering disease that occurs in the spring on new shoots. The symptoms develop in the summer and early fall, and infected branches need to be removed. In recent decades there has been breeding work focused on selecting for disease resistant varieties, as noted in my recommendation list below. Black knot | UMN Extension
Prunus mume are similar in habit and appearance to flowering cherries. The main difference is they bloom much earlier and the flowering time is dependent on weather. If temperatures are mild, they can begin blooming as early as December, but more reliably they flower through February and March. Temperature also influences fruit set. Like any fruiting tree, if a hard frost (below 25F) occurs while the plant is flowering, it is unlikely that fruit will form. Since this tree produces small apricots with a massive seed inside, most home gardeners do not want the fruit, as it is messy and can lead to self-sowing. Later blooming varieties are more likely to set fruit, but ultimately winter weather will determine the outcome.
The fragrant flowers are the real reason to cultivate this tree. All varieties are fragrant with the white and soft pink cultivars producing a sweet, fruity scent. In contrast, the dark pink and red varieties smell more like cinnamon. When the tree is in full bloom the fragrance can be enjoyed from quite a distance. (295) A rainy visit to the JCRA during Prunus mume season – YouTube
Believe it or not, there are over 300 cultivars of Prunus mume, though you would never know that by shopping at a garden center or nursery. As a former propagator of flowering apricots, I can confirm they are tricky to produce from cuttings, but once rooted, grow very well in containers and transplant like a dream into the garden. Though they grow vigorously from seed, there is no way to know what color the flowers will be, the habit of the plant, or the disease resistance. Therefore, asexual production of cultivars is the standard in the nursery industry.
The cultivars of flowering apricot include single and double blooms in colors ranging from pure white and pink, to rose and deep red. Since they bloom in the middle of winter on naked branches, the blossoms can be seen from a far distance, ushering in the hope of a new season of abundance.
In Japan the cultivars are classified into 3 categories: yabi meaning wild; hibai for red blooms and heartwood; bungo referring to the province where the trees are cultivated for fruit production. These references can be found in some of the cultivar names. In America, we have fewer options to choose from with mail order nurseries often being the only source – be sure to thumb through the fruit tree suppliers on Garden Savvy!
During my tenure as propagator and Grower at Camellia Forest Nursery, I worked with every cultivar of Prunus mume that I could find. Though I love them all, here is my top ten list:
Top 10 Prunus mume
- Bridal Veil- weeping pale pink-white single flower
- Bonita- medium pink, double flower
- Hokkai-Bungo- darkest red, single bloom
- Josephine- white, semi-double flower, bred for disease resistance
- Kobai- red, semi-double blooms
- Mastubara Red- dark pink, single
- Nicholas- light pink, super double flowers, bred for disease resistance
- Omoi-No-Mama- white and pink single flowers
- Peggy Clarke- rose pink double flowers
- Pink Panther- medium pink, double flowers, bred for disease resistance
If you live in USDA zones 6-8 and need a pop of color and fragrance in the middle of winter, Prunus mume is the tree for you! Check fruit tree suppliers here on Garden Savvy. With low maintenance requirements and a heavy flowering habit you won’t be disappointed by the gorgeous flowering apricot.
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