Prunus BESSEYI Bailey.                                                                       HOME

1. Bailey Cor. Ex. Sta. Bul. 70:261. 1894. 2. Contrib. U. S. Nat. Herb. 3:156. 1895. 3. Bessey Neb. Hort. Soc. 26:168. 1895. Bessey l.c. 37:121. 1906. 4. Britton and Brown Ill. Flora 3:251. 1897.

P. pumila Besseyi. 5. Waugh Vt. Ex. Sta. Rpt. 12:239. 1898-99. 6. Bailey Cyc. Am. Hort. 3:1451. 1901.

Plant a small shrub, spreading or diffuse, one to four feet in height, open-centered, slow-growing, hardy; trunk slender, smooth; branches slender, smooth, very dark brownish-black, with numerous lenticels; branchlets slender, short, with short internodes, dark grayish-brown becoming almost black, smooth, glabrous, with conspicuous, small, raised lenticels.

Leaves hanging late, numerous, small, two and three-eighths inches long, one inch wide, thick, stiff, slightly folded upward or nearly flat; apex with a short taper-point, broadly lanceolate to nearly oval-lanceolate; upper surface dark green, glossy, smooth; lower surface very light green, not pubescent; midrib distinct, glabrous; veins small but distinct; margin serrate, teeth appressed, tipped with indistinct, sharp glands; petiole thick, three-eighths inch in length, glandless or with from one to two very small, light colored, globose glands on the petiole at the base of the leaf; stipules very prominent, almost leaf-like.

Flowers appearing with the leaves in sessile umbels, small, less than a half-inch across, white; fruit more than a half-inch in diameter, globose, sometimes oblong-pointed, yellowish, mottled or more often purple-black; variable in quality but always more or less astringent; ripening in early August; stone large, globose, slightly flattened.

The habitat of Prunus besseyi is not yet definitely bounded but it can, at least, be said that this species is to be found on the prairies from Manitoba and Minnesota to southern Kansas and westward into Montana, Wyoming and Utah. In its natural range it undoubtedly runs into that of Prunus pumila to the east, and Waugh, in the reference given, holds that the two species grade into each other and he, therefore, makes this a variety of the eastern species. Certainly Prunus pumila and Prunus besseyi are as distinct as are many other of the more or less indefinite species of this genus - few, indeed, are the species of Prunus that do not have outliers which overlap other types and, as we shall see, there are hybrids between this and species of other cherries, plums and even peaches and apricots, showing that the lines of demarcation between the members of this genus are difficult to define.

Although Prunus besseyi has received attention from horticulturists less than a quarter-century it has aroused much interest, best indicated by the fact that now a considerable number of varieties of the species are under cultivation and there are more than a score of hybrids disseminated in which it is one of the parents. Indians, trappers and early settlers have long used the wild fruit under the name of Western Sand Cherry, Bessey's Cherry and Rocky Mountain Cherry. Among pioneers this cherry was held in high esteem for sauces, pies and preserves and, where there was a dearth of cultivated cherries, was eaten with relish out of hand. The flesh is tender, juicy and, while astringent as commonly found, plants bearing aromatic and very palatable cherries are often found growing wild while some of the domesticated plants bear very well-flavored fruits. All speak of the Sand Cherry as wonderful in productiveness and as having remarkable capacity to withstand the vicissitudes of the exacting climate in which it grows. A valuable asset of Prunus besseyi is its great variability. Fruit from different plants varies in size, color and flavor suggesting that, under cultivation, amelioration will proceed rapidly. The plants of this species root freely from layers or root-cuttings and are therefore easily propagated and multiplied.

But it is in its hybrids that this western cherry has proved most valuable in horticulture. There are now hybrids under cultivation between this species and the Sand plum (Prunus augustifolia watsoni), the Hortulana plum (Prunus hortulana), the Simonii plum (Prunus simonii), the Japanese plum (Prunus triflora), the American plum (Prunus americana), the Cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera), the Sweet Cherry (Prunus avium), the peach (Prunus persica), the apricots (Prunus armeniaca and Prunus mume), and the common plum (Prunus domestica). It would almost seem that this species is the "go-between "of the many and varied types of the genus Prunus. It is true that few of these hybrids yet shine as orchard plants but, given time, it seems certain that some will prove valuable in general horticulture and that many will be grown in the special horticulture of the northern Mississippi Valley and the adjoining plains to the west. Credit must be given to Professor N. E. Hansen of the South Dakota Experiment Station for most of our present knowledge of hybridism between this and other species.1

In his work with this species Hansen has also found that Prunus besseyi makes a very good stock for peaches, apricots, Japanese and native plums and that, while it does not so readily consort with the true cherries, yet it can be used as a stock for them. On the other hand larger fruits of the Sand Cherry can be grown when it is budded on stocks of the American plum, Prunus americana.

1 See bulletins 87 (1904), 88 (1904), 108 (1908) and 130 (1911) from the South Dakota Experiment Station, Brookings, S. D.