When will Macon’s Cherry Trees bloom?

 

One of the things we enjoy most about the cherry trees is that they usually bloom all at once, en masse, and put on quite a beautiful show all over town.  And about this time of year, I’m often asked when our Japanese Yoshino Cherry Trees (“prunus x yedoensis“) will bloom? The answer is “at the best possible time for cherry trees to bloom”, which is up to God, the weather, and the trees. We can only guess when that will be! 

 

Statistics

However, we have some statistical data to help us make an educated guess. My grandfather, William A. Fickling, Sr. kept a detailed log for more than ten years of when his cherry trees bloomed, including the first and last dates they bloomed, and the average peak bloom date. He kept statistics for downtown, his house on Ingleside Avenue, and the Fickling Farm on Rivoli Drive. From this log, we know that the average peak bloom date for Macon is March 23rd, which coincides with his birthday. We always try to plan the festival so that March 23rd is included within the 10-day festival period.

 

Standard deviation from the mean

However, there is a wide swing of plus or minus two weeks from the average peak bloom date. There have always been blossoms on March 23rd every year that I can remember, but some years the cherry trees were just starting to bloom on the 23rd, and some years there were only a few blossoms remaining. Several more factors enter into the equation that we know of.

 

Chill hours

I know many people worry when we have a mild winter, that the cherry trees will bloom early. However, as with peach trees, cherry trees require a minimum number of chill hours to set a good bloom. In very mild winters, they may not get enough chill hours, and contrary to what you might expect, that can actually delay the bloom, or cause the trees to become confused and bloom at different times. 

 

Microclimate

The average cherry tree only holds its blossoms for 7 to 10 days, or less if wind or rain knocks them off. But because Macon is bisected by the Fall Line between the Piedmont Plateau and the Coastal Plain, Macon has several microclimates, and that tends to spread the bloom period. Typically, the cherry trees downtown bloom at a slightly different time than the trees on Ingleside Ave, and the trees in Wesleyan Woods are a few days different as well. Also, Yoshinos are mountainous understory trees in their native habitat in Japan, and are typically healthier when shaded by conifers, and grown on a sandy/rocky well-drained slope, and hence have a superior bloom in their favored locations.

 

Genetic Variation

Most of the Yoshino cuttings in Macon were taken from the original cherry trees that were planted in Grandfather’s front yard. One of the trees typically bloomed a few days earlier than the others. My grandfather took cuttings from all the trees, and if you look around Macon, you’ll notice that some trees will bloom a few days earlier than the others.

 

Age

You may have noticed that younger Yoshinos tend to bloom earlier than their older siblings. Yoshinos under stress also put out basal shoots and these typically bloom earlier than the original trunk. Many people let one of the larger shoots grow since it’s often an indication that an older tree is dying. Healthy older trees may delay bloom, especially on their higher branches, and their leaves also sprout later.

 

Length of bloom period

All these variations add up. So, while any given tree may only bloom for 7 to 10 days, the total bloom period in Macon can be as long as two weeks. Weather affects this too though. Yoshino blossoms are cold hardy and are rarely affected by frost or freezing temperatures. However, the delicate blossoms are easily affected by wind or rain and are easily blown off, which can regrettably cut the bloom period short in bad weather.

 

Pink Blush phase

Just before the cherry trees bloom the buds begin to swell and turn pink. Because there are so many buds on a Yoshino the entire tree can take on a soft pink hue around dusk. The blossoms also change colors as they age. They appear brilliant white when they first open. Then they slowly turn pinker. They are at their pinkest right before they fall off. In years when the blooms last longer, they turn a much richer pink.

Disease and pests

In the last few years, we’ve had very mild winters, and this has allowed shot hole fungus and tree-borer pests to affect the trees, and many of them in Macon are badly affected.  The trees at my Grandfather’s house on Ingleside, and at Fickling Farm on Rivoli are some of the oldest trees in town and are the most badly affected.  We are replanting the trees, but it will be quite a few years before these locations are as beautiful as they were in recent years. 

The Keep Macon Bibb Beautiful Commission in cooperation with many local agencies are investigating new varieties and hybrids that are more disease resistant, and better able to tolerate the heat.  The leading contender is a variety developed at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. named Helen Taft after the wife of President Taft who received the original gift of Yoshino trees from the wife of the Mayor of Tokyo Japan that are planted around the Tidal Basin in Washington.  While these are presently in short supply, we hope to increase the production of these disease-resistant trees and restore the beautiful spring bloom we’ve all come to love and enjoy. 

Keep Macon-Bibb Beautiful Commissioner and Master Gardener Wayne Woodsworth has launched a project to determine which varieties of cherry trees grow best in Macon.  Please contact KMBBC if you wish to donate to this effort. 

 

Winter of 2021-2022

 Compared to recent years, we’ve had a lot of cold nights this winter, and we hope this will slow the diseases and suppress some of the pests.  The current forecast calls for warm weather the next couple of weeks.  Unless we have an unexpected cold snap, my guess is that the trees will bloom in time for the opening weekend of the Cherry Blossom Festival on March 18th

 

Wm. A. Fickling, III

March 1, 2022