COLORFUL VERTICAL FOR SMALL SPACES: PRUNUS VS. CERCIS
By Cassy Aoyagi: Both small, deciduous Cercis occidentalis and Prunus cerasifera can squeeze their knock-out blooms and foliage into tight places, but money doesn’t grow on either tree. Cercis occidentalis, however, will provide a wealth of color without robbing you of water.
Famed for its purple leaves and white Spring blooms, Prunus cerasifer is often seen in parkways and patio containers. While it can squeeze into tight spaces, it may put the squeeze right back on you. Native to Europe and Asia, Prunus:
- Gets fussy in low nutrient California soils.It will need supplemental watering and nutrients to survive.
- Lacks elegant form. While all trees have a certain lovliness all their own, when placed side by side with Cercis, Prunus lacks the grace and unique elegance of our own native alternative.
- Makes a mess. While the fruit of Prunus may attract some berry eating birds, it is also likely to litter your hardscape with sticky falling berries.
Hosts pests. Among others, scale and aphids like to make Prunus their home.
Cercis occidentalis is the perfect tree for any small area since it only reaches a height of about 20′ max over a long period of time. Native to the west, from California to Utah, it is acclimated to our rocky soils from midrange elevations at about 4000 feet to the coastal ranges.
Temperature extremes inspire amazing transformations in Cercis throughout the year. Cercis will display its lovely, smooth bare stems in winter, blossom with amazing pink/magenta flowers early spring, delight you with light dainty heart shape leaves through spring and summer, and put on a show in autumn with dramatic yellow to orange hues. This perpectual show comes with a few other benefits:
- Survives California soils. Cercis doesn’t need much of anything and tolerates both drought and poor soils.
- Holds its shape and stays put. It doesn’t have invasive roots or weak branches – it’s a survivor.
- Show stopping flowers make stunning stem arrangements. Cercis stems in bloom will last in a vase for weeks and can be used, as the Native Americans did, for basket weaving and dyes.
- Takes on a variety of shapes. Purchase multi-trunk Cercis to shape as a shrub or a single trunk for a small shade tree.
- Creates habitat for nesting birds. Unlike Prunus that houses scale and aphids, Cercis brings beneficial and birds.
For big drama, select ‘forest pansy’ Cercis. Combine with plants that add texture under Cercis. Highlight its extraordinary color with and highlight smaller shade plants like Heuchera maxima, juncus, or wild strawberry.