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Purpleleaf Plum Trees

    About 109 years ago (1880), M. Pissard immortalized his name in the annals of horticulture by introducing from Persia to France the first purpleleaf plum tree. That original clone, Prunus cerasifera 'Pissardii' has in turn produced many seedlings, including hybrids, with more or less of "purple" color in their foliage.
    Seattle, my native city, is full of them. In order to write a comprehensive tree guidebook (soon to be published) (my book titled Trees of Seattle was published in 1990) I began studying these purple trees and found 13 clones present here! General confusion reigns in their naming and description by authors and nurserymen. So I have tried to learn everything possible about all such cultivars, with the goal of writing a monograph that will accurately account for every kind (my book titled Purpleleaf Plums was published in 1992). Dozens of letters have been mailed, the local libraries checked, and my garden darkened with a collection of purpleleaf plum stock.
    There is now enough information for a definitive article --except for some serious gaps regarding certain cultivars. The following thumbnail cultivar-summaries might be divided into two groups. Just over half of the cultivars I know enough about to rest satisfied. About the others I eagerly solicit any additional information. When my influx of new findings dries up I shall write the complete monograph.
    In the following brief summaries of the different clones, those followed by an "x" are hybrids. Hence purebred Prunus cerasifera seedlings are in the minority. When a tally is made of every species of Prunus involved, directly or indirectly, in the parentage of the purpleleaved hybrids, over a dozen species are accounted for!

    ALLRED is a seedling of 'Pissardii' that arose in the U.S. (Amity, Arkansas) in 1939. It is still in the nursery trade. The leaves are red only in spring; by midsummer they are bronzy-green. The clone is valued for its fruit, not as an ornamental.
    ANGUSTIFOLIA is apparently a seedling of 'Pissardii' with narrow leaves. So it is described in the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society 53: (pages 328-329); I know no more about it (It turns out that this was a greenleaf cultivar).
    ATHERTON (x) originated as a branch sport in Atherton, California (about 25 miles south of California) sometime in the mid 1970s. It was grown by the Saratoga Horticultural Foundation, and some specimens were distributed for testing, but it was never formally introduced. It definitely shows some Prunus Mume influence, for like 'Blireiana' and 'Moseri' it has wide leaves and pubescent ovaries. But the flowers are tiny, pink and single.
    BIG CIS (x) is patented (March 22, 1983, no. 5003) sport of 'Cistena' that originated in Oregon. It differs from the shrubby 'Cistena' in being tree-like.
    BLIREIANA (x) is an old, well known cross of 'Pissardii' and Prunus Mume 'Alphandii' that "originated as a chance seedling raised on the property of the late Edouard André, at La Croix, in France, about 1895. It first flowered in April, 1901, and was put into commerce four years later. La Croix is near Bléré, and it is from this town that it takes its name." (W.J. Bean)
    CISTENA (x) is a South Dakota (U.S.) cross of 'Pissardii' and Prunus Besseyi, the latter being a bush with tiny fruit. It was an intentional cross, made before 1906, by Dr. Niels E. Hansen. It was named 'Cistena' (Sioux Indian for "baby") and released in 1910. As far as I know the English name "Crimson Dwarf" refers to ordinary 'Cistena' stock. If it actually is a clonal selection, will someone inform me?
    COCHECO (x) is a chance cross from New Hampshire (U.S.), that arose as a seedling in the spring of 1962 on the farm of Dr. E.M. Meader, of Rochester. A Japanese plum (Prunus salicina) cultivar was the seed parent, pollinated by 'Pissardii' or one of its seedlings. The clone was named 'Cocheco' (an Indian name meaning "red") and introduced in the spring of 1977.
    COLEUS (x) originated about 1895, in North Carolina (U.S.), on the property of J.S. Breece (or J.C. Breese) of Fayetteville. It is a seedling of a 'Kelsey' fruiting plum that was pollinated by 'Pissardii'. It was originally described as a very handsome tree --an improvement on 'Pissardii'-- but seems to have been lost to cultivation, at least under its original name.
    DIVERSIFOLIA is a seedling of 'Pissardii' that arose I know not where or when. I guess around 1930 in the United Kingdom. It has also been called 'Asplenifolia' and was until recently offered for sale by Hilliers nurseries.
    FESTERI (x) "originated as a chance seedling of Prunus 'Vesuvius' found at Kenmore Hospital, near Goulburn, New South Wales, and named after the Head Gardener who first discovered it." (1968; Walter G. Hazlewood, page 181 of A Handbook of Trees, Shrubs and Roses) If anyone knows when this arose, if it is still sold, if it has been introduced to the North, etc., please let me know. (As of 2010, it is still known and grown in Canberra, Australia.)
    GARNET (x) has the same history as does 'Coleus' but we know it first fruited in 1892 so it must be one of the very earliest 'Pissardii' hybrids. It was said to make early-ripening plums, but since 'Coleus' has better foliage and other trees had better plums, this probably was lost to cultivation. Another clone also named 'Garnet' was an 1888 cross of 'Wickson' and 'Satsuma' (two greenleaf cultivars).
    GRACILIS was apparently a seedling of 'Pissardii' and was described as follows in the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society 53: (pages 328-329): "With long narrow groups of branches (sometimes called var. elegans, but that name has also been applied to a variety with narrow leaves edged with white, called in some catalogues 'Louis Asselin')." If anyone knows anything more of this, please contact me (It turns out that this was a greenleaf cultivar).
    HAZELDENE VARIETY all I know of this is as follows: "A dark-leaved form of Pissard's plum is the var. nigra, the best of all, perhaps, is one known as the Hazeldene Variety." (page 542 of volume II of W.J. Bean's Trees and Shrubs, 7th edition, 1950-1951)
    HESSEI is a shrubby clone with strangely shaped and colored leaves. Krussman says it was developed around 1906 by Hesse of Weener, West Germany.
    HOLLYWOOD (x) was discovered about 1932 in California, and said to be a cross of 'Pissardii' with a Japanese fruiting plum --possibly the cultivar 'Duarte'. It was introduced by L.L. Brooks of Modesto, in 1936. Few nurseries outside of California have carried it. I think it may be a mere renamed Luther Burbank purpleleaf cultivar (he introduced at least five!). In recent years, most trees sold as 'Hollywood' have proved to be 'Trailblazer'. These two are very different in flower and fruit, however similar their foliage may be deemed.
    KRAUTER'S VESUVIUS was introduced by Carl Krauter of Krauter Nursery in Bakersfield, California, about 1957. As are 'Nigra' and 'Thundercloud' it is a dark-leaf, pink-flowered tree quite like 'Pissardii' in other respects. But it has an unusual tolerance of sunny, dry conditions, so is the most widely planted purpleleaf plum in the Southwest of the United States. It has unfortunately been confused with Luther Burbank's entirely dissimilar 'Vesuvius'.
    MINN. NO. 1 and MINN. NO. 2 (x) resulted from the 'Compass' Cherry-Plum pollinated by 'Pissardii' and were distributed in 1917 and 1918 by the State Fruit-Breeding Farm of Zumbra Heights, Minnesota. Under these names, however, are also grown some greenleaf plum cultivars. It seems that the purpleleaved ones have either disappeared from cultivation or have been sold variously as 'Minnesota Red' or 'Minnesota Purple'. But these names might also have been used, in part, for either 'Cistena' or 'Newport'.
    MOSERI (x) is like 'Blireiana' in origin and in general, but makes a larger, more open tree, and has paler pink flowers. It has also been sold as 'Veitchii' and as 'Light Pink Blireiana'. Alfred Rehder gives 'Boehmeri' as a supposed but uncertain synonym on page 321a of his Bibliography of Cultivated Trees and Shrubs.
    MT. ST. HELENS (x) is a patented (March 1, 1983, No. 4987) sport of 'Newport' with superior form, growth, and color. It came from Oregon and was named in 1981.
    NEWPORT (x) originated in Excelsior, Minnesota, at the University of Minnesota State Fruit-Breeding Farm of Zumbra Heights. It was a cross made in 1913 of the complex hybrid 'Omaha' and 'Pissardii' and was distributed in the spring of 1923.
    NIGRA is in need of careful study. The first mention of the name seems to be by Liberty Hyde Bailey in 1916 where he limits his description to "very dark purple leaves." This won't do! We have no certainty that the clone sold in the contemporary nursery trade is the same tree Bailey meant. At any rate, the tree currently called by this name does have very dark purple leaves, and pink flowers. I want to know how it differs from 'Woodii'.
    OTHELLO was a Luther Burbank (of Santa Rosa, California) introduction dating from about 1914, obviously named after Shakespeare's black Moor of Venice. I have a hunch it is a hybrid, but its parent was 'Pissardii'. It appears to be out of the nursery trade and I dearly desire scionwood if anyone can supply it.
    PAUL'S PINK is mentioned as a 'Pissardii' selection --no further data-- on page 105 of the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society 70: (1945) in a context that dates from 1925. So I presume 'Paul's Pink' was an English selection of 'Pissardii' with pinker flowers, that arose perhaps around 1920.
    PISSARDII (or ATROPURPUREA) is the original purpleleaf plum tree, found at Tauris, near Teheran, Persia, by M. Pissard, the French head gardener to the Shah. It is to be credited (or blamed if you prefer) with engendering the rest of the cultivars here discussed. One in Seattle is 48 feet tall, and 58 feet wide, and its trunk circumference 7.5 feet. --although larger trunks are known, the overall size of this specimen is impressive.
    PISSARDII PENDULA is apparently a seedling "with drooping shoots" and so described in the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society 53: (pages 328-329) (It turns out that this was a greenleaf cultivar).
    PURPLE C (x) was a companion of 'Cistena' (i.e., Purple A) and 'Stanapa' (i.e., Purple B) but was not further named and released.
    PURPLE FLAME was the last official purpleleaf plum to come from Luther Burbank, about 1922. Whether Burbank or Stark Brothers Nursery gave it the name I don't know, but it wasn't commercially available until after the prolific plant-breeder had died in 1926. I know of no nursery still carrying it, nor whether or not it is a hybrid.
    PURPLE FLASH is a name that has been around since before 1961. It is quite likely nothing but a fancy name for 'Pissardii' but may be a legitimate clonal selection. Does anyone know?
    PURPLELEAF KELSEY (x) was the first intentional purpleleaf plum cross. Luther Burbank simply pollinated the Japanese (Prunus salicina) plum 'Kelsey' with 'Pissardii' and commercially offered it in 1893. It may now be long gone, or existing under a different name.
    PURPLE PIGMY (x) is the name I have been using for what appears to be a seedling of a Prunus microcarpa that was pollinated by 'Pissardii'. The University of Washington Arboretum received seeds of Prunus microcarpa in 1947 from the botanic garden at Ashkabad, in the Turkmen S.S.R., and as the seedlings have grown up it is obvious that the individual with larger, purplish leaves, and larger fruit, etc., is a hybrid.
    PURPLE PONY or DWARF PURPLE PONY is a seedling of 'Krauter's Vesuvius' that originated in California around 1962 and is claimed to be dwarf and absolutely fruitless, thus quite dissimilar to its parent. It has regular pink Prunus cerasifera flowers with pollen-bearing stamens, and an ovary that looks completely normal. I planted one and intend to observe its growth and fruitfulness, expecting it will prove neither dwarf nor sterile.
    PURPUSII is said by Krussman to have been introduced by Hesse of Weener, West Germany, in 1908. It is still available.
    ROSEA (x) is accounted for one page 235 of the Hillier nursery catalog. 'Nigra' x Prunus spinosa, it came from Holland (around 1950?) and is sometimes sold as Prunus spinosa 'Rosea'. However, the name 'Rosea' has also been used in catalogs as Prunus Pissardii rosea which I believe refers really to 'Nigra' or 'Woodii'.
    R.W. HODGINS is mentioned as "a Victorian introduced form (of 'Pissardii') with larger and darker foliage, flowers pale pink." (page 271 of Richmond E. Harrison's Handbook of Trees and Shrubs for the Southern Hemisphere) I expect this is still known only in the Australia-New Zealand area, or is even lost there. But the name is English so it might also have originated in Britain. Was R.W. related to the Hodgins after whom the species Fokienia Hodginsii was named?
    SPENCER HOLLYWOOD (x) is possibly one of the least known but most valuable clones. If the tree I have in mind is really 'Spencer Hollywood' it has compact, natural dwarf form, attractive pink, fragrant flowers, good summer color, and large, delicious, handsome plums. What more could be desired? The tree called 'Spencer Hollywood' arose in Oregon, and was commercially available from at least 1977 to 1984 (Samuel J. Rich Nursery Co.). Whether it is still sold, I have been unable to ascertain (It is).
    STANAPA (x) was a companion of 'Cistena' raised by Hansen, but had less purple color and grew larger. Its Sioux Indian name means "purpleleaf."
    THUNDERCLOUD was released by Luther Burbank in 1919. It is the most widely sold purpleleaf plum tree in the United States. Its name was originally spelled 'Thunder Cloud'. Stark Brothers Nurseries sell it as "Burbank Purple Leaf Plum" and it must not be at all confused with the 'Stribling Thundercloud' --see 'Vesuvius'.
    TRAILBLAZER (x) is supposed to be a 'Shiro' x 'Pissardii' cross. ('Shiro' is a hybrid with four species in its background.) It came from Portland, Oregon, in 1947, was patented and commercially offered about 1954-1955. It was originally called 'Oregon Trail' until someone pointed out that name belonged to a green-leaved Japanese plum. 'Trailblazer' is often wrongly sold as 'Hollywood'.
    VESUVIUS (x) was originated by Burbank and offered about 1907. The dwarfish stature, peach-like foliage aspect, and scantily-produced white flowers are all very far removed from 'Pissardii'. It certainly has Prunus Simonii or Prunus salicina blood in it. It is amazing how many different trees have been miscalled by this name. The real clone is rare, and largely perhaps may be confined to the United States West Coast. It is, I believe (but am not certain) the 'Stribling Thundercloud' sold by the California nursery Stribling's at Merced.
    WOODII is said to be of English origin but first sold in Germany by Spath in 1910. The great question is: how does one distinguish this from 'Nigra'?
    WRIGHTII (x) I presume to have arisen at the Avondale, New Zealand nursery of H.R. Wright. It is a cross of some kind of purpleleaf plum and the 'Pollardii' Almond-Peach hybrid.

    Even when we admit that some of the above names are probably synonyms --especially in a practical sense, if not a technical one-- and even discounting those kinds that are lost to cultivation, we are still left with a large number of purpleleaf cultivars. Readers unsatisfied with the meager amount of information presented, may wait for my monograph (my book titled Purpleleaf Plums was published in 1992) or can write to me. Will anyone who has little-known data also please pass it along? (I still will appreciate more information . . . Thanks)

(Originally published in 1989 International Dendrology Society Yearbook, pages 107-112, that was published in early 1990.)


Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert

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