Purple plum a perfect backdrop for hot reds
PURPLE plum is one of the first trees to flower in spring. This year, despite the mildness of the winter, it is pretty much on time. Some years it is a little earlier, others a couple of weeks later. In early February, it opens its flower buds and over a period of about three weeks puts on a great show of flowers.
It is part of the cherry family and most people take it to be a cherry. It is also known as cherry plum. It has smallish flowers as cherry trees go but they are very pretty, a flat cup-shape with the petals separated. The flowers are carried on bare branches and set off nicely by the dark-coloured bark.
The original species has green leaves and pure white flowers, often taken to be blackthorn, although it has larger flowers and flowers several weeks before the wild blackthorn. The most commonly grown forms are the purple-leaved varieties, which is the reason for the name 'purple plum'.
There are several varieties with purple leaves, some darker than others. The most common is Prunus cerasifera 'Pissardii', which has purple leaves and pale pink flowers. Darker in leaf colour and rich pink flower colour is the lovely 'Nigra'.
Purple plum is a good garden tree because it is relatively small. It is easily fitted into most available spaces. In summer, it looks like a small copper beech tree and makes a good substitute where a copper beech would be too large. The purple-red colour makes a superb backdrop for hot red, yellow and orange colours.
The cherry plum will grow well in any soil, except very wet ground, although it manages to thrive in heavy ground. It actually flowers better in soil that is not too rich, and likely to make it overly leafy. It is totally hardy and can be planted even in cold districts.
In recent years, a recovery of bullfinch numbers has led to increasing damage to purple plum in rural areas and at the edges of towns. The birds strip the flower buds and reduce flowering. A tell-tale sign of bullfinch attack is to see the lower branches with flowers and the top without any flowers, because the birds tend to feed mostly at the top of the tree, where it is safer.
Like most members of the cherry family, purple plum should not be pruned in winter because the spores of silver leaf disease and canker disease, both fatal diseases, can enter through the pruning cuts. Prune in June but only if it is essential, because pruning can spoil the appearance of the tree. Now is a good time to choose colours and to plant.