The purple leaf plum tree -- Prunus cerasifera -- has several different cultivated varieties, or "cultivars." Most purple leaf plum trees vary only in their appearance and not their planting requirements or care, however. Beloved for their reddish-purple foliage and white to pink, fragrant flowers, purple leaf plums are lovely ornamental landscape trees. Purple leaf plum trees are also sometimes called cherry plums.
Purple leaf plum trees grow best in USDA hardiness zones 5 through 8, where winter temperatures rarely dip down to minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit. These zones include areas in Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Georgia and Texas. Purple leaf plum trees won't tolerate hotter climates, such as those in zones 9 through 11 like most of Florida, Hawaii and Southern California. Depending on the cultivar, purple leaf plum trees range in height and spread from 15 to 30 feet. They typically have a more shrublike growth form with spreading branches.
The most common cultivar of the purple leaf plum tree is P. cerasifera 'Atropurpurea,' which grows rapidly up to 30 feet in height. Thundercloud is another common cultivar, growing up to 25 feet tall and wide. The Newport cultivar -- P. cerasifera 'Newportii' -- grows to just 15 feet tall and wide, while the Frankthrees or Mt. St. Helens variety is similar to the Newport cultivar but is faster-growing. Other less-common purple leaf plum tree cultivars include Purple Pony, which grows to about 12 feet tall and Krauter Vesuvius.
Atropurpurea, Frankthrees or Mt. St. Helens, Krauter Vesuvius, Newport and Thundercloud all bloom in light-pink flowers, while Purple Pony has darker-pink flowers than most other purple leaf plum cultivars. Although Thundercloud and Newport have reddish-purple leaves throughout the growing season, Atropurpurea's leaves start out ruby-red, turning dark reddish-purple and then greenish-bronze in late summer. Krauter Vesuvius and Purple Pony have dark-purple foliage. Atropurpurea and Thundercloud produce edible plums and Thundercloud also has very fragrant flowers.
Purple leaf plum trees enjoy full sunlight exposure and prefer moist but well-draining soil. They won't tolerate waterlogged soils. The trees require little to no pruning. Although the purple foliage adds colour and texture to landscapes, purple leaf plum trees are short-lived and susceptible to many different diseases and insect pests, most notably canker diseases.
- NC State University Cooperative Extension; Prunus Cerasifera; Erv Evans
- Clemson University Cooperative Extension; Ornamental Cherry, Plum, Apricot & Almond; Debbie Shaughnessy, Bob Polomski; June 1999
- University of Florida IFAS Extension: Prunus Cerasifera 'Thundercloud'
- University of Florida IFAS Extension: Prunus Cerasifera 'Newportii'
- Michigan State University Extension: Prunus Cerasifera -- Cherry Plum
- University of Illinois Extension: Cherry Plum (Prunus Cerasifera)