South Georgians don't have much luck growing ornamental cherry trees. But a University of Georgia scientist at the Coastal Plain Experiment Station in Tifton, Ga., is testing a new cherry tree that can splash some early-spring color south of the fall line.
"We're recommending the Okame cherry tree for landscapes below Columbus, Macon and Augusta," said John Ruter, a research horticulturist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
"We can grow this tree all the way over to the coast in Savannah," he said. "And it will grow all the way up the Eastern seaboard to Massachusetts."
Ruter said most people choose to put cherry trees in their landscape for the early-spring color they provide. But the cherry varieties traditionally grown in colder climates don't reliably provide that color in warmer climes.
"In south Georgia, we don't always get the chill hours required for some cherry varieties to bloom well," Ruter said. "Okame requires fewer chill hours, is more reliable and can give us a good bloom most years."
Okame is also more disease- and insect-resistant than Yoshino or Taiwan cherry trees grown in the region.
Ruter started evaluating Okame in 1990 with a rooted cutting. A more recent, formal evaluation of several cherry varieties, including Okame, began in 1997.
He said Okame is a cross between a small, shrub-like cherry with white flowers and the large Taiwan cherry with deep pink flowers.
"What we get is a small-stature cherry tree with nice, medium-pink blooms," he said. "This tree will probably grow to 20 to 25 feet tall with about a 15-foot spread."
Ruter said the most popular cherry tree grown in Georgia now is the Yoshino cherry, the variety found around Macon. But Yoshino trees, prized for their large, white blooms, need more chill than they can usually get in south Georgia.
"Okame trees are easy to plant and take care of," Ruter said. "As with any cherry tree, it can't stand a wet site. We haven't had many disease problems with it, either."
Okame trees bloom quickly after planting within two years, Ruter said.
But they may be hard to find at your local garden center. "A lot of retail nurseries don't know about this tree yet," Ruter said. "But it is commercially available in the wholesale trade. So your garden center should be able to order one for you."
Most ornamental flowering trees do best when transplanted in February and March. Ruter said it's best to get them into the ground in your landscape before they bloom. But with proper care, they can be transplanted just about anytime year-round.
"Field-grown trees really need to be planted in February," he said. "But container-grown trees can go in any time. Just don't let them get too dry."
Your county extension office has more information on selecting, transplanting and caring for ornamental fruit trees and other landscape plants.