It's that time of year when pink flowering buds burst into color on trees and many people think they are taking joy in cherry blossoms.

Actually, the truth is that those budding trees in Northern Nevada are more likely a flowering plum than that of an actual cherry tree, although ornamental cherry trees certainly can be found in the area.

"What people primarily are going to be seeing right now is what's called the Thundercloud flowering plum and other varieties of flowering plums," said Wendy Mazet, horticulture program coordinator for the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension and a certified arborist. "They're in the same genus [as the cherry tree]; they're just not the same."

Of course, it may not be unusual for people to think that any tree with pinkish-color flowers is a cherry tree. After all, the well-known cherry trees in Washington D.C. – gifted to the U.S. from Japan in 1912 – certainly have made a case for themselves with the popularity of a springtime festival. Muddying the waters is both the flowering plum and cherry tree tend to bloom around the same time of year, and their flowers have a somewhat similar look in shape and and color from a distance.

That's why it can pay to be an arborist, like Mazet.

Telling them Apart

One easy way to tell the two trees apart is from the smell they emit – yes, the smell. That is, the flowering plums let off a blossoming scent while the cherry tree does not. In fact, cherry trees have no scent at all, which can be a quick and easy way to tell them apart up close.

"The flowering plums are going to have a scent to them," Mazet said. "Cherry blossoms do not. They are not fragrant."

Another difference is that cherry blossoms have a small split at the end of their petals and plum blossoms do not, according to the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival website. This split is evident and can be seen when examining the petals up close. As well, the bark of the cherry tree tends to be more horizontal in nature compared to that of the plum tree.

An additional differentiating feature is the blossoms of the flowering plum have a pink tinge and a single five-petal flower whereas the petals of the cherry blossom can be pure white, striped white with pink, or pink depending on the specific variation or cultivar (a plant variety produced by selective breeding), according to Mazet.

While the cherry blossom also has five petals in its flower, cultivars of the tree can have double or triple flowers, making them unique in look. Last but not least, like anything else in life, there always is the question of cost. And this may be another reason why people are more apt to see the flowering plum than a cherry tree around.

"The ornamental cherry tree is going to be more expensive than a flowering plum tree," Mazet said.

Finding a Similarity

Of course, there are some similarities, too.

"The interesting thing about the plant kingdom is everything is broken down," said Mazet. "The key is plums and cherries are actually in the family of Rosaceae, which is the rose family."

While neither tree is native to the area, there are some varieties going far far back, such as the Desert Peach or Prunus andersonii, that do grow naturally in the region. And, of course, the Thundercloud flowering plum is just one variety of the plum tree. There are many cultivars of the ornamental cherry, as well, too, with some of these having two or three grafting points to bring out specific features.

"A lot of people like cherry trees that are weeping," she said. "You have to graft that characteristic on there."

The long and the short of it is that people who want to see a flowering plum in Reno may just need to head out their front door. Finding a cherry tree may be a harder endeavor, but anyone who wants a definite peak can head up to the arboretum at the University of Nevada, Reno. There its Cherry Blossom Garden, to the northwest side of the planetarium, features Mt. Fuji cherry trees as well as ornamental grass, bamboo and azaleas.

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