Monday, March 12, 2012

Permaculture Plants: Nanking Cherry

A bush cherry that can grow in most places... perfect!

Common Name: Nanking Cherry
Other Names: Manchu Cherry, Chinese Dwarf or Bush Cherry, Downy Cherry, and many more.
Scientific Name: Prunus tomentosa
Family: Rosaceae (the Rose Family... includes all cherries, plums, peaches...)

The small, sweet cherries have soft hairs on them.

Nanking Cherry is a medium to large, multi-stemmed shrub from China that produces small, shiny, red berries with a juicy, true cherry flavor – it is a true bush cherry. It can produce in almost any growing condition, tolerates some shade, is very resistant to diseases, tolerates drought, and because it is much smaller than a full cherry tree, it is easier to protect the tasty fruit from hungry birds.

Prunus tomentosa - M. Smith, 1908 (Curtis's Botanical Magazine, vol 134)

  • A native to the central hills of Asia, Nanking Cherry has been cultivated for centuries.
  • Introduced to Britain in 1870 and to the U.S. in 1892.

  • Nanking Cherry fruit is usually bright red, but pink and almost white fruited plants exist.
  • Nanking Cherries do not reproduce true to type… meaning that each fruit contains a seed that will grow into a shrub that resembles the parents, but may be shorter, taller, wider, thinner, and produce fruit that may taste better or worse or ripen to a different shade of pink to red.

Lee Reich (gardening author) showing how easy it is to harvest Nanking Cherries.

Primary Uses:
  • Fresh eating
  • Fruit juice
  • Dried
  • Fruit Leather
  • Preserves, jams, jellies, etc.
  • Baking – pies, tarts, etc (need to be pitted first)
  • Cooking – great for making sweet/savory sauces
  • Alcohol – primary or as flavor addition to beers, wines, cordials, liquors, etc.
  • Vinegar – primary or as flavor addition
  • Pickled - unripe fruits
  • One report of flower buds being edible after cooking

Secondary Uses:
  • General insect (especially bees) nectar plant
  • Food source for wildlife (especially birds) in Summer
  • Windbreak hedgerows
  • Beautiful, fragrant flowers (pink buds and white petals) in the Spring
  • Dark grey-green dye from fruit
  • Some, but not many, medicinal uses have been reported

Yield: 12-15 lbs per bush

Harvesting: Late Summer (July-August). Fruit is about half an inch (1.2 cm) in diameter. Pick when the fruit is fully colored and juicy. Remember there is a pit (seed) in the center.

Storage: Fresh fruit does not store well and is best eaten fresh – within a day. The fruit’s stem stays on the shrub leaving a hole in the top of the fruit allowing juice to leak out… which it will readily do. Can be dried after pitting.

Beautiful, fragrant flowers that attract beneficial insects are just one great thing about this plant.

The pink blossoms turn to brilliant white as they mature.

USDA Hardiness Zone: 2-7
AHS Heat Zone: 7-1 (very heat and cold tolerant)
Chill Requirement: Likely, but no reliable data can be found as to the specifics

Plant Type: Medium to Large Shrub
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Shrub Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: There used to be a large number of named varieties, but many have slowly been lost over the last 100 years. Mostly non-named seedlings and a few named varieties are available.

Pollination: Partially Self-Pollinating/Self-Fertile – will produce better (more and larger fruit) when planted with other varieties of Nanking Cherries

Flowering: Spring (April-June). I’ve seen conflicting statements about Nanking Cherry’s susceptibility to late-spring frosts. Both sources are very reliable, so I can only assume that different plants exhibit different traits.

Life Span:
Years to Begin Bearing: 1-3 years
Years to Maximum Bearing: 2-4 years
Years Between Large Crops: 1-2 years
Years of Useful Life: 15 years

Size: 5-10 feet (1.5-3 meters) tall and wide
Roots: Fibrous tap root, medium depth, may produce suckers
Growth Rate: Medium

The summer leaves of the Nanking Cherry are rather non-descript...

...but the Spring flowers and almost black branches in Winter make this an attractive plant.

Light: Prefers full sun
Shade: Tolerates light shade, reports exist of Nanking Cherry still being productive in deep shade
Moisture: Medium, but can tolerate some droughts
pH: most species prefer fairly neutral soil (6.1 - 7.0)

Special Considerations for Growing: 
Does not tolerate juglone (natural growth inhibitor produced by Black Walnut). Do not plant near Black Walnut or its relatives.

Propagation: Almost exclusively from seed. Seeds require 2-3 months cold stratification for germination. Can be propagated through cuttings. Can be propagated through layering in the Spring.

Minimal. Can prune in the center for good air flow and light penetration, but it is not needed. Some plants can develop “branch dieback” which is either a fungal or bacterial infection. Some growers will cut out diseased branches, but it will rarely kill the whole plant. If the plant seems to producing less than in years previous, a severe pruning (up to cutting back to the ground) may trigger a quick and productive rejuvenation.

Poisonous – Leaves and seeds contain a precursor to cyanide (large amounts need to be eaten for this to be toxic).

Ribs with Maple Whisky and Nanking Cherry Barbecue Sauce


  1. Great informative article. Love the way you link the plant into the Permaculture design process. I'll have to see if this type of cherry is available in Australia. Cheers

  2. I was sure this was going to be the cherry I would love for privacy and my climate issues. You saved me from the mistake of planting under the awful self seeded walnut trees lining the fence on the neighboring property. Thanks soooo much

    1. walnut trees are VERY valuable and one of the trees we need to preserve.

  3. I bought ten 18 inch "sticks" from a catalog nursery 7 years ago. One of the best purchases I've ever made. Plenty for harvesting to make jelly and enough left over for the songbirds. A good early source for honeybees. Great all around plant.

    1. How big are they after 7 years. I just Planted some long to 2 or 3 feet? Thanks

    2. How big are they after 7 years. I just Planted some long to 2 or 3 feet? Thanks

    3. Our's are 7-8 years old and stand ~6 foot tall. I'm not sure how long it took for them to reach 2-3 feet though. - Different Anonymous

  4. We had a yard full of these when I was a kid. They taste great, but have very large stones for the size of the fruit. There are more modern varieties that have comparatively far superior fruit, but in taste and fruit size. Try Romeo, Juliette, crimson passion, or one of the other "romance" varieties. Way better.

    1. The romance series are sour cherry trees developed where I live (Saskatchewan, Canada). Nanking cherries are altogether different and fruit directly on the branch whereas both sweet and sour cherries grow from stems on the branch and usually in clusters of two or three. I prefer sour cherries for pies, nankings for jelly and sweet cherries for fresh eating.

  5. Don't know where this author lives, but I'm on Oklahoma and my Nanking bushes fruit in May and will all be gone by mid June. Had them for many years and they some years get so heavy with fruit the branches nearly lay on the ground. Pruning took care of that and is really needed or they get out of hand. I had to use an 8' ladder to get to the top one year and then cut them down for manageability. They are coming back up and I will keep them down to a bush.

  6. I have this bush and I love it. This is the second year of bearing fruit and it is a nice tasting cherry. The information in this article is very helpful.

    1. Do you just have one plant? I bought one from a catalog and the reason I only bought one is because it said it was self pollinating. Now that I have got it I have read where it needs more than one. Although this article did say it can be self pollinating. Thanks

    2. I have 2 that I added at different times.

      The first grew well, but no fruit for 3 years. At the end of the third year I added the second plant. The 4th year I had a slightly better fruit set on the big bush. The 5th year (this year) I had much better fruit set on the big bush, although the birds ate them all.

      They will self pollinate a bit, but to get really good fruit set they need a helper. That being said, there is a LOT of variation plant to plant. We had a single bush when I was a kid that grew tons of fruit every year without a pollinator anywhere nearby.

  7. Tough winter on my 16-17 year old hedge. Dry, very windy, 70 degrees in January then down below zero within two days. Then kept repeating in my Zone 3-4. Little snow cover. Only leaf mulch. Normally, Nanking does very well, but now in April almost no sign of life. Looks like they lived a good life. In a couple of weeks will prune hard to near ground to see if roots still have life. Five years ago needed to hard prune part of hedge for sewer line replacement with trucks driving over hedge during winter. Plants came back in spring and grew quickly. Thanks for the life span information. I will mourn.

  8. I started a Nanking cherry seed in my backyard about 8 or 9 years ago. I live in southern Saskatchewan, prairie type land, Canada. It's turned into a beautiful shrub, very hardy, blooms like crazy every spring. We have honeybees in the blossoms, but I have yet to enjoy one single berry! I guess I will have to find another one for pollination - I don't think they self-pollinate...

    1. I found one behind an abandoned house here in North Dakota. It fruited this year, and there only appears to be one tree.

  9. These have readily spread across our ~1 acre yard via robins. Didn't know what they were until today (17 years post purchase). A neighbor lady asked if she could pick some to make jelly with and we asked what they were and she told us 'choke cherries.' Came to the net to look it up and found this article. Nanking cherries are exactly what we have after reading the description. Here (central Utah), they're kind of 'weedy' and sprout up everywhere. But they taste just like a 'real cherry' :) Ours are large bushes, 6-10 ft tall and similar width, with several younger ones around 3-4' tall/wide.

  10. Any advise on how to prevent dieback?

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  12. my parents had these in their garden and my grandma had them too. (In Ukraine) They were all planted in pairs . Bloomed like crazy and had tons of berries.

    I currently live in the US and cannot wait to plant these. They will remind me of childhood plus I their berries are so incredibly delicious.

  13. Nice article, apart from the totally unrelated carcass pic at the end of the article.

  14. I grow and sell Nanking cherry. I even have some white Nanking cherry. I can ship 2 year old potted plants. They are about 12 inches to 14 inches tall with little branches and have a 6-9 inch root plug that is about 3 inch circumference. I have tons of these. Had no idea they were quite so rare.

    1. Can you email me. I am interested in purchasing a few nanking cherries. White and red.

      SilentTala AT Gmail dot com

    2. I’m interested in your naking cherries. Email me with prices jtjbrown at scrtc dot com

    3. Do you still have the white nanking cherries for sale?

  15. I bought a nanking cherry tree over 4 years ago now and still have no cherries ,bought 2 black nanking cherry trees 3 years ago, all are growing bigger, but still no cherries to speak of ,disappointed

  16. We have 6 Nanking cherry bushes. They bloom every year, but the branches where the flowers were die off right after the bloom. They don't produce any cherries. We have plenty of bees (several beehives in our back yard). Are we doing something wrong? What should we do to help them to produce the cherries? Thanks!

  17. Nicely written and great info.Thanks to share the more information's.
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  21. Nanking cherries fruit best if they have a second nanking cherry. Just make sure the second bush is a second variety, and not a clone of the first (such as grown from cuttings, grafts, or root suckers)—otherwise the trees still won't pollinate each other well. Since nanking cherries rarely list any kind of variety, the simplest way to do this is to make sure the two bushes were planted from seed. Any time a plant comes from seed, it's genetically a different variety than every other plant grown from seed, no matter how similar it is to its parents. Thus two nanking cherries from seed will pollinate each other.

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