The Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc.

Trees & Shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden

The oldest public wildflower garden in the United States

Western Sand Cherry

Common Name
Western Sand Cherry (Bessey's Cherry)


Scientific Name
Prunus pumila L. var. besseyi (L.H. Bailey) Gleason


Plant Family
Rose (Rosaceae)

Garden Location
Historical - not extant


Prime Season
Late Spring Flowering
Mid-summer fruit



Western Sand Cherry is a deciduous small shrub growing from 4 to 6 feet high and spreading just as wide.

Twigs are reddish with small white lenticels. The buds are reddish brown with lighter tips to the scales, and are clustered at the top of old leaf scars. Older stems take on a more purplish color and the whitish lenticels become horizontally elongated.

The leaves are a smooth glossy silvery medium green on top, more pale under giving the plant a gray/green appearance. They are an elongated-elliptic in shape, up to 2 inches long and 1 inch wide, tapering smoothly to a pointed tip, and to a tapered base and a short stalk. Margins have fine teeth, the most acute of the three varieties. There is one main vein with laterals curving toward the tip. There is a pair of long narrow stipules at the base of each leaf.

The inflorescence is a series of clusters of 2 to 4 stalked flowers along the length of prior year twigs, appearing with the new leaves.

The flowers are 5-parted with 5 white oval petals of the corolla that have rounded tips and taper to a narrow base. The calyx has 5 short green lobes with obtuse tips. These lobes are placed alternate to the petals. Stamens are numerous, rising from a yellow-green fleshy ring at the base of the corolla, then exserted from the corolla on pale yellow-green filaments ending in yellow anthers. The style is single, with a blunt knob-like tip.

Fruit: Fertile flowers mature to a medium size (18mm diameter) globose purplish pome that contains one large seed. The fruit can be eaten raw or cooked. It has a sweetish flavor but is astringent. Jelly will retain the astringency. Like all Prunus species pits, these contain hydrocyanic acid and the pits must be removed before use. Fruit matures in mid-summer.


Habitat: Sand Cherry prefers full sun in sandy to sandy-loam soils and tolerates dry to moist conditions. It will tolerate partial shade, but flowering and fruit production will be poor. The root system tends to sucker forming thickets. Established plants are drought resistant. Propagation can be by fall sowing of the pits immediately after removing from the fruit, or by rooting from softwood cuttings taken in summer.

Names: An older synonym for this species is Prunus besseyi L.H. Bailey. The large genus, Prunus, is named after the Latin word for the plum. The species name, pumila, means 'dwarf' as in a dwarf plum. The variety name, besseyi is an honorary for Charles Edwin Bessey (1845-1915), American botanist, professor of botany at Iowa State University and then at the University of Nebraska, author of a number of botany publications and developer of an arrangement of flowering plant taxa based on evolutionary divergence from primitive forms. Eloise Butler considered him “the greatest and most enthusiastic teacher I have ever met.”

The author names for the later plant classifications refer first to ‘L.H.Bailey’ who was Liberty Hyde Bailey (1858-1954) American horticulturist and botanist, editor of numerous works. He concentrated on Agrarian needs, was influential in the development of the Extension System at State Universities and was one of the first to recognize and reintroduce the work of Gregor Mendel. His work was updated by ‘Gleason’ which refers to Henry A. Gleason (1882-1975) American botanist and taxonomist, author of a number of papers on plants of the middle west and co-author with Arthur Cronquist on their major taxonomic system for flowering plants, now widely adopted (the "Cronquist System").

Varieties: Two additional varieties are found in Minnesota. See below. for details.

See bottom of page for notes on the Garden's planting history, distribution in Minnesota and North America, lore and other references.


Above: The flower clusters are located all along the twig, interspersed with the new leaves.

Below:: 1st photo - Flowers occur in clusters of 2 to 4 on the prior year's twig. 2nd photo - There are numerous stamens that arise from a yellow-green fleshy ring inside the throat of the corolla. The style is single, with a blunt knob-like tip.

flowers Flower closeup

Below: 1st photo - The calyx has 5 short green lobes with obtuse tips. Lobes are placed alternate with the petals. 2nd photo - The fruit is an edible globose purplish pome that contains one large seed - it turns a purplish black at maturity.

sepals fruit
mature fruit

Below: 1st photo -Twigs are reddish with small white lenticels. The buds are reddish brown with lighter tips to the scales, and are clustered at the top of old leaf scars. 2nd photo - Bark on older stems take on a more purplish color and the whitish lenticels become horizontally elongated

twig bark

Below: The leaves are a glossy silvery-green with a toothed margin. At the base of the leaf stalk (3rd photo) are a pair of very narrow linear stipules.

Buds leaf stipules


Notes: Western Sand Cherry is not indigenous to the Garden but was introduced by Eloise Butler in 1912 under the older name of Prunus besseyi. She obtained her plants from Kelsey's Nursery on the east coast and two more plants from there in 1917. The species is not native there but it is possible they were growing it as it was well known at that time. P. pumila var. besseyi is found in Minnesota in a number of counties mostly concentrated in the central and SE parts of the state. In North America it is found in the central states from Montana south to Utah on the west and then eastward to Nebraska and Kansas, then north to Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. In Canada it is known in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario.

Varieties and species: There are three varieties of P. pumila found in Minnesota and one other in North America. Minnesota varieties are: Var. besseyi, the Western Sand Cherry as described above; var. susquehanae, the Sesquehana sand cherry where the leaves are more elliptic or obovate, length up to 2.6 times the width with less sharply pointed teeth (other varieties have leaf length of 2.9 to 3.7 times the width), and the first year twigs have fine hair; and var. pumila, the Great Lakes Sand Cherry where the leaves are even more narrow than var. besseyi, less pale beneath and with less pointed teeth, and the twigs are without hair. Var. pumila is found in only a few counties, var. susquehanae is more widespread.

The other five native species of Prunus found in the state are: P. americana, American Wild Plum; P. nigra, Canadian Plum (or Cherry); P. pensylvanica, Pin Cherry; P. serotina var. serotina, Black Cherry; and P. virginiana var. virginiana, Chokecherry. Several introduced species have also been reported.

References and site links

References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.

graphicIdentification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.