Monday, February 28, 2011

Prunus cerasifera and spinosa

Cherry Plum (Prunus cerasifera) in bud. Trowbridge, 27th February 2011. 

Prunus cerasifera (Cherry Plum), a haze of thousands of green-creamy buds. (Click photo to see it better.) This is the earliest semi-wild Prunus to make a showing, and these trees are earlier than any of the others in my area, probably because they're growing in a sheltered spot over water (the River Biss).

Within the crown a few blossoms had already decided to go for it. Some of these early ones have six petals, like the one on the right (below).

Cherry Plum is also known as Myrobalan Plum.  Being particularly incurious I had never wondered before what "Myrobalan" actually meant. I just assumed there was probably some part of the world called Myrobal or Myrobalia where this plant originated. Not so. The tree is native to large areas of Europe and Asia (though not the UK), and the general etymology of "myrobalan", according to something I read on the web, is : "Obsolete French mirobolan, from Latin myrobalanum, fragrant oil from seeds of the horseradish tree (), from Greek murobalanos : muron, perfume + balanos, acorn." Eh? Well, as far as I can make out the name became attached to a number of small tree species (e.g. the tropical fruit tree Phyllanthus emblica, commonly known as Myrobalan) and then ended up becoming applied to the cherry plum, referring to the smallish globular fruits. Or did the transfer go in the other direction? To add to the confusion, the word was inevitably conflated, in many people's minds, with "mirabelle" (a cultivated variety of plum, grown in France). This history of promiscuous redeployment of the same name is fairly standard for non-scientific plant names (and scientific ones too, if you give them half a chance).

Cherry Plum (Prunus cerasifera), first blossoms. Trowbridge, 27th February 2011. 


(A few weeks later, in West Swindon)

Cherry Plum (Prunus cerasifera)

Mid-March 2011, now smothered in blossom. A very common tree along the busy roads here.

Cherry Plum (Prunus cerasifera)

By this time, in any normal year*, P. cerasifera is starting to overlap with early-flowering Blackthorn (P. spinosa).

[*In 2013 it was different. Cherry Plum was off and running by the end of February, as usual, but then it ran smack into the coldest March in half a century; a sustained spell of arctic high pressure with day after day of freezing temperatures. All the other blossom-trees slammed on the brakes, but Cherry Plum was already committed. So it had March all to itself, standing there miserable and cold, crying out to non-existent insects, and at last reluctantly fading. The weather finally broke around 6th April; I saw Blackthorn coming into flower on the 9th. By then, some of the Cherry Plum (including the earliest flowerers) had long since shot their bolt. The rest, however, made remarkable efforts to prolong their flowering season and thus salvage something from the year. They looked strangely impressive in a battle-scarred way; most of the crown was a mass of brown withered blossoms but lines of new blossom crept over the surface, mostly low down and near the tips of the shoots.

I also noticed Cherry Plum in flower on 3rd January 2016, following the mildest December on record.]

Cherry-plum (Prunus cerasifera), late blossom. Swindon, 26th March 2019. 

An old Cherry-plum (Prunus cerasifera) losing its petals early. Frome, 14 March 2022.

Emerging leaves on Cherry-plum (Prunus cerasifera). Frome, 14 March 2022.

Cherry Plum blossom and Blackthorn blossom are quite similar, but here are some tips I picked up from the Facebook Wild Flower group:

P. cerasifera blooms several weeks earlier than P. spinosa.

P. cerasifera blossom is accompanied by the opening leaves; P. spinosa blossom appears before the leaves.

P. cerasifera flower-stalk is as long as petals, P. spinosa flower-stalk is shorter than petals. One upshot is that P. spinosa blossom tends to bunch, with the flowers pointing out in different directions.

P. spinosa petals tend to be narrower (which makes the stamens seem more prominent.)

P. cerasifera sepals are more likely to reflex.

If last year's stems are green, you can confidently say it's P. cerasifera. But if they are brownish or reddish or purplish, then while it could be P. spinosa or P. domestica it could equally well be P. cerasifera (the dark-leaved varieties, e.g. 'Atropurpurea', never have green stems). 

P. cerasifera twigs are at a more acute angle to the parent stem (P. spinosa twigs are almost at right-angles).

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa). Frome bypass, 25th March 2019. 


Spring breaks in foam 
Along the blackthorn bough.
Whitethroat and goldenwing
Are mating now.
With green buds in the copse
And gold bloom in the sun
Earth is one ecstasy
Of life begun.
And in my heart
Spring breaks in glad surprise
As the long frosts of the long years melt
At your dear eyes. 

(Charles G.D. Roberts)

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa). A typical roadside thicket. Frome bypass, 25th March 2019. 

From a Facebook discussion about the once more common practice of keeping railway embankments clear by burning: "Black thorn doesn't burn unless the fire's been started with less dense wood, in which case it burns hot enough to forge with!"

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) as a garden tree! Swindon, 21st March 2019. 

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), fading blossom. Swindon, 26th March 2019. 

Various shades of Cherry Plum (Prunus cerasifera). Frome bypass, 21 March 2021.

In gardens, Prunus cerasifera is most often grown in one of its dark-leaved forms, 'Atropurpurea' (known as Pissard's Plum) with near-white flowers but an overall pinkish effect, or 'Nigra' with clear pink flowers. These colour variants find their way into the "wild" population too, producing sights like the three different shades in the rubbish photograph above.

Large old Cherry Plum (Prunus cerasifera). Frome, 27 February 2022.

Plum trees are small and don't live very long. In that context this is a comparatively giant and ancient Cherry Plum that I noticed in Richmond Road in Frome. (Alas, it was cut down the following year.)

"Deviant" Cherry Plum

(Above and below.) Now here's a puzzling one. This Swindon individual has numerous fierce thorns, and the flowers appear before the leaves.

So far, that sounds like it should be Blackthorn. But it blooms at the same time as Cherry Plum, and has relatively big flowers with long flower-stalks. I reckon it's most likely a deviant Cherry Plum, though it could be a hybrid between the two.

"Deviant" Cherry Plum

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), buds.

(In April, just as the blackthorn blossom is beginning to move past its best, a third wave of plum blossom gets going. I won't get into that in this post, but it's Bullace (Prunus domestica ssp. institia) -- compared with blackthorn, the blossom is on taller shrubs grading into small trees.)

Petals of Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)

Cherry Plum (Prunus cerasifera), young fruits developing. Swindon, 20th April 2014. 

Cherry Plum blossom may be very uniform, but the fruit is surprisingly varied in size, shape, colour and flavour. It isn't as sweet as a Victoria but it's still very nice. This is an abundant wild food around towns, for those who care about it. The pictures below were taken in August.

Cherry Plum (Prunus cerasifera), ripe fruit. 

Cherry Plum (Prunus cerasifera), ripe fruit.

Cherry Plum (Prunus cerasifera), ripe fruit. 

Cherry Plum (Prunus cerasifera), fallen fruit. 

Cherry Plum (Prunus cerasifera), fallen fruit.

Cherry Plum (Prunus cerasifera), fallen fruit. 

Prunus cerasifera, leaf and young twig

Now and then you might have the challenge of identifying P. cerasifera when there's no flowers or fruit to be seen, for instance in deep woodland. So here's how. The finely-toothed leaves are alternate, indicating the plum family (eliminating Spindle, Buckthorn etc). The young twigs are (usually) green and hairless (whereas e.g. Bullace twigs are purple and downy).

This caught my eye in Starbucks, but no it doesn't mean Prunus cerasifera. Though it does contain natural plum flavouring and natural cherry flavouring, whatever that means.

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