Sunday, April 8, 2012

Apples and Cherries in Bloom

Japanese crabapple (Malus floribunda) turns our street pink in color this time of year

What a lovely time of year! It is still early here at the edge of the Great Plains. Native prairies are still mostly brown but in town the streets are covered with the snowy blossoms of cherries, apples, & pears, and bright pink or red flowers of Japanese crabapples. Many people have asked me how you tell the difference between these closely related trees, and I know others are sometimes confused by them so here are a few hints.

All these fruit trees are in the Rose family so look quite similar since they are so closely related. You might say the easiest distinction is that cherries produce cherries and apples produce apples. But of course that does not help very much when we are looking a flowers in the spring!

In general the apples have larger more robust flowers and the cherries are smaller and more delicate. But to really tell them apart you need to pick a flower and look carefully at it. The key is in looking at the female parts in the center of the flower. Cherries and their relatives just have one female part the pistil with one thick stem-like style. Apples on the other hand have multiple styles. If you want to get even more technical you can cut the flower in half and look for where the base of the pistil (the ovaries) are located. If they are located below the base of the flower (inferior) they are apples, if they are located right at the base of the flower (superior) they are cherries.

There are a bewildering array of ornamental and agricultural varieties of cherries and their close relatives including apricots, plums, peaches, and almonds. All have stones or pits in the center of their fruits, often poisonous, which seems like a good way to lessen the chance that animals will not destroy the seeds within, and make them good seed dispersers!

Most of our popular fruits from this family come from Europe, the Middle East or Asia. They all seem to readily cross pollinate each other leading to many hybrids and many varieties. This is also why they have been such an important source of food for people for so many generations. You can produce just about any texture or flavor or color of fruit from these trees. It just takes patience.

For the Project BudBurst Cherry Blossom Blitz, seven distinctive species are highlighted. If you find a tree that does not seem to fit the descriptions and following some of the hints above it is still clearly a cherry then you can list it as "other cherry".

In northern Colorado its been a wonderful year for the blooms of these trees. Warm temperatures, and no heavy frosts led to flowers coming out about 3 weeks early this year. Apple flowers first emerged on April 2nd, and are slowly coming into full bloom. Most of the crabapples are in full bloom today, first with the tough Siberian crabapples with white blooms, and now with the pink Japanese crabapples. Sweet cherries are in full bloom now, but pie cherries are still in bud, and chokecherries are just starting. So there is a bit of a pattern with timing of the flowers of these trees, but in this early spring you can sometimes see many of them in bloom at the same time. Looking at and photographing these exuberant flowers is a wonderful way to enjoy a warm spring day!

Paul Alaback

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