The purple leaf plum tree (Prunus cerasifera), also known as the cherry plum, is popular in landscaping due to its ornamental nature. It’s a relatively small tree that has a rounded, spreading growth habit almost like a shrub. It produces fragrant, five-petaled pale pink to white flowers in the spring that are roughly an inch across, which then turn to small edible fruits. The leaves can range in color from purple to green. This tree has a moderate growth rate and gains about 1 to 2 feet per year. It’s best planted in the early spring or fall.
|Botanical Name||Prunus cerasifera|
|Common Names||Purple leaf plum, cherry plum|
|Mature Size||15–25 ft. tall, 15–20 ft. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full, partial|
|Soil Type||Loamy, well-drained|
|Soil pH||Acidic, neutral|
|Flower Color||Light pink, white|
|Hardiness Zones||5–8 (USDA)|
|Native Area||Europe, Asia|
|Toxicity||Toxic to pets and people|
Purple Leaf Plum Care
The purple leaf plum is a relatively short-lived tree, lasting only around 20 years, and it requires a bit of maintenance. Yet growers still love it for its beautiful spring flowers and rich leaf coloring.
In terms of its care, plan to water your tree throughout the growing season (spring to fall) if you don’t have sufficient rainfall. This tree also will likely benefit from annual feeding and pruning. Moreover, this is a messy tree. Be prepared to clean up the masses of fallen fruit that drop from the tree. It’s best to plant this tree away from walkways and other sites in your yard that get a lot of foot traffic, so you’re not walking on the fruit. But even so, wildlife will scatter the fruit about as they eat it.
This tree grows best in full sun to partial shade. Ample sunlight causes the tree to produce its best purple leaf color. Otherwise the leaves can become green if it’s in a location that’s too shady.
The purple leaf plum likes loamy soil that has excellent drainage and an acidic to neutral soil pH. It also can tolerate clay and sandy soil. But it doesn’t like compacted soil or pollution and will struggle to grow in urban conditions.
This tree prefers a moderate amount of soil moisture. Once it’s established it does have some drought tolerance. But it likely will need watering during long stretches without rainfall or extreme summer heat.
Temperature and Humidity
The purple leaf plum is fairly tolerant both to cold and to heat. It’s hardy down to 0 degrees Fahrenheit and can handle the high summer temperatures within its growing zones as long as it’s adequately watered. Humidity also is typically not an issue for the tree.
This tree likes moderately rich soil. Fertilize annually in the spring as new growth begins with an all-purpose fertilizer. If you have rich garden soil, you might be able to get away with fertilizing only every two to three years. Your tree also can benefit from some compost worked into its soil in the spring.
Is the Purple Leaf Plum Toxic?
The stems, leaves, and seeds of this tree are toxic when ingested both to animals and people due to the cyanide in them. Wilted parts of the plant contain a higher level of the toxin. However, the mature fruits are not toxic.
Symptoms of Poisoning
Symptoms of toxicity include shortness of breath, weakness, seizures, heartbeat irregularities and cardiovascular collapse. Death can occur if the toxin is ingested in large quantities. This is not common as the plant has a bitter taste. However, some animals have been known to eat the foliage—especially livestock in pastures where grazing is sparse. If you suspect poisoning, contact a medical professional immediately.
Purple Leaf Plum Varieties
- Prunus cerasifera ‘Thundercloud’: This variety features deep reddish-purple leaves.
- Prunus cerasifera ‘Krauter Vesuvius’: This variety looks similar to ‘Thundercloud’ but has even darker spring foliage and grows slightly smaller.
- Prunus cerasifera ‘Newport’: The leaves on this tree are a bronze-purple in the spring, deep purple in the summer, and reddish-purple in the fall.
- Prunus cerasifera ‘Nigra’: This tree has bronze leaves in the spring, very dark purple leaves in the summer, and orange-red leaves in the fall.
- Prunus cerasifera ‘Purple Pony’: This is a dwarf variety that only reaches around 10 to 12 feet in height and spread.
This tree doesn’t need an excessive amount of pruning each year. Simply prune to maintain your desired shape for the tree, and remove any dead, damaged, or diseased branches. Pruning should take place after the tree is done flowering, or you might accidentally remove flower buds.
This tree is prone to several pests and diseases. Insects that might infest the tree include Japanese beetles, mealybugs, borers, tent caterpillars, and scales. Common diseases include leaf spot, gray mold, black knot, and cankers. Symptoms of pests and diseases include discolored, wilted, or otherwise damaged foliage, along with poor growth and flowering. Contact an arborist to help you identify and treat a problem as soon as possible. Ensuring proper growing conditions and good airflow among the branches can help to prevent many problems.
Prunus cerasifera 'Atropurpurea'. Plant Toolbox, North Carolina State Cooperative Extension.
Alsop, Judith A., Karlik, John F. Poisonous Plants. University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, 2016. doi:10.3733/ucanr.8560 2016
Plum (Prunus). The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.