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Cherry trees belong to the genus Prunus of the Rosaceae, or rose, family; the Higan cherry is the Prunus x subhirtella species. The "x" in its name means it is a cross between two species: the P. incisa and the P. pendula. It is a very popular ornamental cherry tree, and there are many cultivars of it. This large Japanese native is especially pretty when planted alone as a specimen tree.
Typically, the Higan cherry will reach heights of 15 feet (about 5 m) by the time it is 20 years old. It may mature at heights of roughly 20 to 40 feet (6 to 12 m), and it is not unusual for the tree to become wider in the canopy than it is tall. Gardeners may let the plant grow naturally, allowing any pendulant branches to droop, or they may prune it into a more formal look. Some cultivars have pendulant branches that touch the ground.
Gardeners often select the Higan cherry for its lovely spring flowers. The pink or white flowers are typically bowl-shaped, up to 0.75 inches (about 1.9 cm) across and grow in clusters of two to five flowers. They usually appear before the leaves develop, giving the tree the appearance of being a delicate cloud of color. Generally, each flower has five petals, but some cultivars have double or semi-double flowers.
The flowers mature into cherries and though the fruit is edible, growers usually do not consider the Higan cherry as a fruit tree. The fruit is red and turns maroon or near-black as it ages. Usually the ovoid, or egg-shaped, fruit is less than 0.5 inch (about 1.3 cm) long.
The leaves are generally elliptic, or oval, with finely-serrated points at each end and are deeply creased at the veins. In the spring, they may be light green, but mature to a deep green. Like many trees, in the fall they turn yellow. They are deciduous trees, meaning they drop their leaves before going dormant during the winter months.
One of the more popular cultivars is the 'Autumnalis,' which has white, semi-double flowers that are tinged with pink. 'Autumnalis Rosea' is similar to 'Autumnalis,' but it has pink flowers. Both of these plants may bloom in the autumn if conditions are favorable. The 'Fukubana' variety has deep rosy-pink, semi-double flowers. Some cultivars have pendulant branches as well, such as 'Pendula Rubra' and 'Yae-shidare-higan.'
When gardeners choose the Higan cherry as a garden plant, they should consider several things. The plant is very large at maturity, and buildings and other plants might crowd it. It also might need to be pruned regularly as it grows if a gardener plants it near electrical lines. The tree also creates more lawn litter than many trees when it drops its berries. If a grower chooses to prune the tree, it may need regular pruning to keep its shape as well.