Drought Stress and Cherry Trees: Signs, Impacts & Management

Have you noticed that your cherry tree isn’t flourishing despite your efforts? If you’re new to growing cherry trees, you may not realize that proper watering is crucial for their well-being.

Without adequate moisture, they can easily succumb to drought stress, so what kind of symptoms should you be looking for?

The signs of drought stress on cherry trees include browning and wilted foliage, slow or stunted growth, increased pest and disease outbreaks, and a general lack of vigor. Proper watering, mulching, and amending poor soil can help manage and prevent drought stress.

Drought stress can take its toll on cherry trees, but with the right tips and tricks up your green sleeves, keeping the worst effects in check and even preventing them altogether is possible.

Keep reading to find out how drought stress impacts cherry trees, how to identify the signs of stress, ideal watering techniques, and more.

Sure, drought stress is a significant problem, but did you know that there are many other things that can go wrong with a cherry tree? Discover how to identify common issues, how to prevent them, and appropriate solutions in my article, Cherry Blossom Tree Diseases and Pests.

Drought Stress and Cherry Trees – What To Know

Cherry trees are generally tough cookies, but periods of drought can test their limits and bring about many preventable health issues.

Keep reading to better grasp how drought can affect your cherry tree in the long term and the main factors behind drought stress.

Understanding Drought Stress & Its Impacts

Without sufficient water in the soil, tree roots are unable to absorb moisture, and if these conditions persist, roots begin to die back.

According to Alabama A&M and Auburn University, even the larger, fibrous tree roots can be lost during prolonged drought and may take weeks to regrow.

Inevitably, root loss and water-starved roots impact every part of a tree, from reducing its energy reserves to inhibited carbohydrate production.

As trees decline, their stressed weakened state also makes them more vulnerable to disease and pest infestations.

Factors Influencing Drought Stress

Besides infrequent watering and certain tree species having greater susceptibility to drought stress, risk factors include planting location and the timing of a drought spell.

  • Fan-trained cherry trees growing against a wall or fence are effectively in a “rain shadow” and will require extra watering.
  • Potted cherry trees will dry out faster than ground-grown specimens due to their small surface area of potting soil.
  • The timing of droughts due to certain weather patterns can also make matters worse. An unusually dry spring season can affect growth for the rest of the season, while a drought during late summer can show effects in the following season.
  • Deep heavy soils like clay and chalk mediums are excellent at retaining moisture. The problem is these soil types hold onto water too well, and little water is available to the tree roots.

Signs of Drought Stress in Cherry Trees

Drought stress in your cherry tree can manifest in many ways including:

  • Lighter green to yellowing leaves.
  • Curled, wilting, and generally distorted leaves.
  • Premature leaf drop.
  • Leaf scorch (displaying orangey-brown tints around the margin).
  • Stunted shoots.
  • Increased pest numbers.
  • Cracks in the bark (after prolonged drought periods).
  • Overall slow or stunted growth.
  • Thinning foliage.
  • Branch dieback.

Effects of Drought Stress on Ornamental Cherry Trees

Ornamental cherry trees can suffer much of the same drought stress damage mentioned above, displaying stunted growth and foliage distortion in addition to becoming a marked target for pests and disease.

Let’s look at the most common effects.

Stunted Growth and Reduced Vigor

Extended periods of drought will see cherry trees produce fewer blossoms and fruit due to an overall lack of vigor and energy.

Left untreated, this can eventually lead to stunted growth, resulting in a noticeably barer canopy and diminished tree height and spread.

Leaf Wilt and Browning

Drought also impacts the foliage, causing the leaves to display brown tips or an overall brown and withered appearance as the leaves are starved of much-needed energy and turgidity.

Increased Susceptibility to Pests and Diseases

A weakened and drought-stressed cherry tree is markedly more vulnerable to pest outbreaks.

This is because continually hot and dry conditions prevent the tree from producing its defense chemicals that would normally take care of most pests.

Drought may even make sap taste better for pests as it increases the sugar content!

Drought can also put cherry trees at higher risk of developing diseases such as Leucostoma canker. This causes amber-colored sap to ooze from branches and cover limbs in sunken black or yellow-brown fungus.

Mitigating Drought Stress in Ornamental Cherry Trees

The impact of drought stress is not a pretty sight on cherry trees.

Fortunately, this can be prevented by maintaining good care practices when it comes to the basics (watering and soil) and going the extra mile for your tree with timely mulching and weather protection.

Proper Watering Techniques

Newly planted cherry trees require immediate watering to allow the soil to settle properly around the root system.

A good rule of thumb is to water them deeply for around 5 minutes each day or every other day (to the point the soil is completely saturated).

After about 2 weeks, move onto deep waterings every 2-3 days for about 2 months or so.

After this period, your sapling can be treated more or less like an established cherry tree.

At this point, natural rainfall can provide adequate water, but in times of drought, a slow 20-minute watering in the morning or evening is best to avoid excess evaporating in the midday heat.

Try placing a hose end directly on the soil just above the root zone and letting the water run at a slow trickle for 20 minutes or so.

Setting up a proper drip irrigation system is probably a good move when it comes to caring for established fruit trees.

How Much Water Does a Cherry Tree Need?

Established cherry trees need roughly 40 gallons of water a week, and this is normally covered by natural rainfall.

If you receive an inch of rainfall every 10 days, this is a sufficient amount for your cherry tree; otherwise, provide supplementary water with a 20-minute trickle every week.

As for potted cherry trees, water daily for the first few days after planting, and afterward, water whenever the top 2 inches of soil feels dry, providing just enough so that the water trickles out from the pot base.

Similarly, when watering large ground-grown cherry trees, always check if the soil is dry and not moist around the trunk and beneath the canopy to determine whether watering is necessary as overwatering can lead to root rot and similar stress-related health issues.

Mulching

To combat poor and dry soil conditions, provide a generous layer of mulch (about 2-3 inches of straw, wood chips, grass clippings, etc.) around the base of your cherry tree in mid to late spring.

This helps to retain moisture around the root zone by slowing evaporation and protects the roots in winter too!

Soil Improvements

Drought stress is more prevalent in fast-draining sandy soils or heavy pure-clay mediums. If your soil resembles either of these, you’ll need to amend the site with loamy, organic matter before planting your cherry tree.

Adding organic matter can help to break down the soil and create a more porous texture to promote better water distribution.

Right before planting, consider adding coir-fiber medium into the planting hole, or mix in one-third peat moss.

Shade and Wind Protection

Though cherry trees prefer full sun over partial shade for healthy growth, a degree of protection from the hot afternoon sun is recommended, especially if you are in living in the southernmost regions of the cherry tree’s Growing Zones (5-9), so consider a sunny but sheltered planting site to prevent the soil drying out.

A lot of soil moisture can also be lost to evaporation due to strong winds, so you may want to consider using a protective cover like a first guard in times of high winds.

Additionally, planting some well-placed companion shrubs beneath your cherry tree can act as a buffer from the wind, protecting most of the soil against dry, windy conditions.

Regular Tree Maintenance

Last but not least, keeping your tree in good shape with regular pruning can help it fight back better against drought stress.

Pruning back diseased and dying branches helps redirect much-needed resources elsewhere and helps cut back on transpiration (water loss) within the canopy.

Just be sure to prune only when drought conditions have improved to prevent injury to your tree in an already weakened state.

Best Drought-Tolerant Ornamental Cherry Trees 

In addition to choosing drought-tolerant cherry tree cultivars, it’s also worth noting that certain cherry rootstock varieties, such as Mazzard, can provide greater levels of vigor in cherry trees, helping them perform well even in heavy, poor soil conditions.

Related Questions:

How Much Water Does a New Cherry Tree Need?

Newly planted cherry trees should be watered deeply (to the point the soil is completely saturated) every other day during their first week and then watered 2-3 times a week in their second week.

After this, aim to water once weekly for the rest of the season, adjusting amounts for rainfall and drought.

How Do You Know if a Cherry Tree Is Overwatered?

An overwatered cherry tree will display signs such as curled or yellowing leaves.

Leaves may also drop prematurely if overwatering persists, and the soil underfoot will appear and feel perpetually wet, indicating the soil type has very poor drainage.

Closing Thoughts

Most cherry trees are susceptible to drought stress due to their specific watering requirements and preferred soil conditions.

As with caring for any new tree, it may take a period of trial and error to get things right with your cherry tree’s moisture needs.

In the meantime, do your best to become familiar with the signs and symptoms of drought stress, maintain good care practices, and if possible, make life easier for yourself by planting a drought-tolerant cherry tree variety!

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