Kathy Zuzek, University of Minnesota Extension Educator
Cherry prinsepia (Prinsepia sinensis) is a little known shrub native to Manchuria that has been in cultivation since 1896. It is a member of the enormous Rosaceae family, and close relatives of prinsepia that you may be familiar with are woody ornamental and fruit varieties from the genus Prunus (cherries, peaches, plums, apricots, almonds) and pearlbush (Exochorda serratifolia).
Cherry prinsepia is one of the first shrubs to leaf out in spring, providing some welcome color after a long Minnesota winter. Bright green leaves are alternate on current season's growth but are produced in clusters on older wood. A thorn is found at the base of each leaf or cluster of leaves. The small immature leaves are soon masked by an explosion of light yellow 5-petaled flowers on old wood in late April. In Minnesota, cherry prinsepia blooms at the same time as flowering almonds (Prunus triloba var. simplex).
After flowers fade, the abundance of bright green leaves produced on the cascading branches give the plant an appearance of what can only be described as a green haystack. By late July, ½" red cherry-like fruit are found singly or in clusters on the plant. Each drupe contains a single seed. The fruit is edible but be warned that it is full of ascorbic acid! Ascorbic acid does not seem to bother birds who love the fruit. The fruit provide winter interest . . . if the birds don't find it first.
Prinsepia's gray brown stems have chambered pith just as our native walnut and butternut trees do. Stems cascade down providing a weeping plant habit to cherry prinsepia. Growth on current years stems changes direction at each leaf node, giving each stem a zigzag look. These weeping zigzag branches provide lots of textural interest. Bark on older stems is brown and exfoliating, providing more textural effect.
Plants of cherry prinsepia on the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus and at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum are 6-8' tall and wide. Prinsepia is not a common shrub but is worth considering for hedges, screens, or as a specimen plant in the back of a garden. It is used in shelterbelt plantings on the Canadian prairies. Kansas State University, North Dakota State University, and the University of Nebraska all include Prinsepia sinensis on xeriscape plant lists. Prinsepia has no major pests and prefers a sunny site on fertile, well-drained soils.
Photos by Kathy Zuzek