A Cultivar Conundrum

Prunus mume ‘Peggy Clarke’ (senior)

I got myself in trouble with a reader a few years back when I wrote about Prunus mume ‘Peggy Clarke’ in an article for a local newspaper about late winter/early spring bloomers. I based the description in my article on my personal experience with the cultivar — a tree currently producing the gorgeous flowers in the above photo. I wrote about how much I love the fragrance of Peggy’s flowers in an earlier blog entry here.

I happen to think the color of Peggy’s flowers is quite lovely. Most of the P. mume cultivars I see have much more pastel-colored flowers. My Peggy’s flowers are a rich, deep rosy pink — a real eye-catcher in the winter landscape.

But as I’ve mentioned before, it’s the fragrance of Peggy’s flowers that completely captivates me. Instead of the lightly sweet fragrance characteristic of most flowering apricot cultivars, my Peggy’s flowers smell strongly of sweet cinnamon. As I’ve written before, if I could figure out how to preserve and bottle that fragrance, I would be delighted beyond words.

And that’s how I got in trouble with that reader I mentioned. My enthusiastic prose describing my Peggy’s many wonderful attributes persuaded her to go out and buy the same cultivar to plant in her yard.  When her young tree bloomed, I heard from her. The nursery she bought her specimen from insisted that it was indeed P. mume ‘Peggy Clarke,’ but her Peggy’s flowers were not the same color as my Peggy’s flowers — and worse, neither was the fragrance.  Not a hint of a cinnamon undertone wafted from her Peggy’s flowers. She wrote, demanding an explanation from me. I didn’t have one, so I conducted an experiment, of sorts.

Blooming branches of Peggy Senior

I bought three different P. mume cultivars when they first became available about 18 years ago from a local nurseryman who specializes in choice plants from Asia. A double-flowered white bloomer didn’t last more than a couple of years. Its fragrance was nice, but the tree didn’t bowl me over, and it clearly didn’t appreciate the site where I planted it. I do not remember its cultivar name.

The single-flowered pastel pink cultivar that I showed you here is still with us, blooming reliably every year, and emitting a light, sweet fragrance that is pleasant, but often so faint that I must stick my nose right in a flower to get a good whiff of it (note — check for honey bees before trying this maneuver).

The third cultivar I bought was P. mume ‘Peggy Clarke.’ I never forgot her name because she is such an exquisitely memorable tree when her flowers perfume the late winter air of my landscape. No kidding, I stop by this tree every day — rain or shine — when she’s blooming, for a bit of aromatherapy, inhaling the cinnamon goodness of her flowers. Peggy’s fragrance never fails to brighten my mood, no matter how dreary the day.

When my reader accosted me regarding her disappointment in buying a paler pink Peggy Clarke with no cinnamon note to its fragrance, I decided to buy another Peggy Clarke. I wondered if perhaps over the course of almost two decades that this cultivar had somehow changed. I think perhaps it has.

My original source for flowering apricots no longer sold Peggy Clarke, so I opted to buy from another source — a mail-order firm that had a good reputation. The tree that arrived was healthy, well-shaped, and certainly looked like a P. mume. Peggy Junior, as I call her, bloomed sparsely for us the second year, but it was enough to confirm what my reader had found. Peggy Junior was a pale imitation of Peggy Senior; her flowers were similarly shaped, but a much lighter shade — more of a carnation pink than a deep rose, as you can see in this close-up of Peggy Junior’s blooms this year:

Peggy Junior’s paler pink flowers

She’s pretty, I’ll grant you, but if you scroll to the top photo of Peggy Senior, you can’t miss the difference in color. Peggy Junior’s fragrance is also a disappointment. She is sweet, but there is no cinnamon magic in her perfume. She smells like my pale pink single-flowered cultivar — nice, but not intoxicating.

Peggy Junior’s flowering branches don’t have the same visual impact in the landscape. The paler color of her flowers tends to disappear on gray winter days. Here’s a shot of her blooming branches so you can compare it to the previous one of Peggy Senior’s branches:

Peggy Junior’s paler pink flowers lack the pizzazz of Peggy Senior’s flowers

I spent some time trying to find a reason for this significant difference in what is supposed to be the same cultivar. I can’t find a reference anywhere that discusses variation in color and fragrance within the same cultivar of P. mume. Thus, I can only guess at why my Peggy Senior dominates my winter landscape with cinnamon scent and rosy color while my Peggy Junior (four years in our yard now) does not.

Guess One: Through an incredible stroke of good fortune, I got a unique specimen unlike all the other Peggy Clarke’s known to the horticulture industry.

Guess Two: As the popularity of flowering apricots among homeowners exploded, the horticulture industry cut corners to generate sufficient stock to keep up with demand. In so doing, cultivar characteristics were compromised.

I have no proof to back either hypothesis. But I am grateful that my obsession with extraordinary plants led me to acquire my original Peggy Clarke when she first appeared in the trade. Be assured that if I decide my landscape needs another Peggy Clarke, I’ll be rooting cuttings from Peggy Senior to ensure I retain this captivating cultivar that perfumes and brightens my winters.

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  1. #1 by Marcia E Herman on January 19, 2012 - 8:13 am

    Our mume has been blooming since the first week of December and is still going strong– the longest bloom period I ever remember. I don’t know the cultivar. It has a sweet but very faint fragrance and lovely pink blossoms.

  2. #2 by piedmontgardener on January 19, 2012 - 8:34 am

    Hi, Marcia.

    Yes, the flowering apricots are taking full advantage of our mild winter. I understand the display in the Duke Gardens is quite spectacular this year.

  3. #3 by Arian on February 1, 2012 - 12:42 am

    Do you think maybe you have ‘Matsubara Red’ or is that too red to be yours?
    That is another pretty one.

    My parents brought another interesting winter blooming flower from Iran: Ice-Flower (aka Wintersweet in US) thats blooming off and on since Mid December here in Philadelphia. Not as pretty as the flowering apricots though 🙂

    • #4 by piedmontgardener on February 1, 2012 - 7:48 am

      Hi, Arian, and welcome!

      It is always tricky to judge the appearance of flowers by their photos, but I agree that your suggestion bears a strong resemblance to my ‘Peggy Clarke.’ I’d need to see it in person — and smell the fragrance of the flowers — before I’d be willing to make a guess.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  4. #5 by Thea on March 12, 2012 - 4:41 am

    People report that Prunus mume “Rose Glow” has a cinnamon scent.

    • #6 by piedmontgardener on March 12, 2012 - 6:56 am

      Welcome, Thea! And thanks for the tip about the purported scent of ‘Rose Glow.’ Perhaps my ‘Peggy Clarke’ was never a ‘Peggy Clarke’ at all. In any case, I shall continue to enjoy the fragrance of my “Peggy,” whether or not that’s her true identity.

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