Few plants are as closely associated with the JC Raulston Arboretum as the Japanese flowering apricot, Prunus mume. J. C. Raulston widely promoted this winter flowering tree as a valuable addition to the southern landscape. It flowers from late December to early March depending on selection and brightens the winter garden with white to deep red-pink flowers and a delightfully spicy clove scent that warms even the coldest day.
Prunus mume makes a small to medium, wide spreading tree from 15 to 30 feet tall and often nearly as wide. The mature bark can be somewhat attractive with cinnamon tints and corky ridges and the young branches are a distinctive glossy green. While the summer foliage is non-descript, the 1 to 1 ¼ inch flowers more than make up for the pedestrian foliage. The flowers range from white to dark rose pink and provide a vibrant exclamation point in the winter landscape with their spring-like color and delicious, spicy scent. The thin-fleshed fruits are inedible by American standards but are commonly pickled in Asia.
Japanese apricot is native to moist, well-drained hillsides in China and is an important landscape plant in China and Japan. It flowers best in full sun but will tolerate slightly shaded spots. Young, grafted plants grow quickly often as much as 5 feet in a season. It roots readily from softwood cuttings taken in late May through July but grows more slowly as a rooted plant. Although susceptible to several insects and diseases, these are rarely fatal and P. mume are often long-lived landscape plants.
In the 1930’s, China designated it the national flower with the 5 petals representing the 5 blessings (wealth, health, virtue, old age, and natural death). The flowers are widely represented in Asian art through paintings and ceramics. The Japanese have several hundred cultivars represented in the nursery trade but many fewer are available in the US. The JCRA has trialed about 34 different named selections over the years and currently has 22 cultivars in the collection. Most have proven to be good performers in the southeast and are reliable into zone 6 gardens.
Selected cultivars at the JCRA:
‘Big Joe’ – Large flowered, single white opening from reddish buds. Vigorous grower selected by Tom Krenitsky.
‘Bonita’ – Small to medium tree with clear pink, fully double flowers. Named by W.B. Clarke.
‘Bridal Veil’ – Strongly weeping, vigorous tree selected and introduced by Camellia Forest Nursery. Semi-double flowers of palest pink open from pink buds. Relatively late flowering.
‘Dawn’ – Small to medium tree with very large, semi-double flowers in late February to March. Each light pink petal is heavily ruffled for a full effect. Possibly a re-name of the Japanese selection ‘Musashi nono’.
‘Josephine’ – Pale pink single flowers on a tough tree.
‘Kobai’ – Some confusion in the trade regarding this plant. The true ‘Kobai’ is a semi-double, deep red-pink color.
‘Luke’ – A purplish red-pink color on a vigorous tree.
‘Matsubara Red’ – One of the deepest red-rose flowers available. Early semi-double flowers on an upright tree. New growth is reddish and young stems are burgundy instead of the typical green.
‘Nicholas’ - An upright grower with large semi-double soft pink flowers. Purported to be more disease resistant than other selections.
‘Okitsu Akabana’ – Late flowering with very large double pale pink flowers.
‘Omoi no Mama’ – Semi-double flowers range from white to pink on a compact, heavy flowering plant.
‘Peggy Clarke’ – Popular double flowered form with clear pink flowers held by a red calyx. Introduced in the early 1940’s by W.B. Clarke.
‘Rose Bud’ – Double flowered form with soft pink flowers.
‘Rosemary Clarke’ – A white flowered semi-double form opening from pinkish buds. Introduced prior to 1940.
‘Ryogaku’ – A single white flowered form.
‘Sabashi-ko’ – Single, deep pink flowers early in the season.
‘Tama’ – A very old form listed in a USDA inventory in 1919.
‘Tojibai’ – Single white flowers on a long blooming tree.
‘Trumpet’ – Early flowering form with very large pale pink single flowers.
‘W.B. Clarke’ – Very graceful weeping form with fully double, clear pink flowers.