Western Sand Cherry

Prunus besseyi (Syn. Prunus pumila var. besseyi)

Description & Overview

Western Sand Cherry is a suckering, spreading shrub that reaches heights of up to 5 feet. Native to Wisconsin, it can be found in the southwestern counties bordering the Mississippi River and Illinois border on thin, sandy soils.

The foliage is an eye-catching gray-green color with a beautiful spring display of white flowers covering the plant. Flowers give rise to small, dark-purple cherries that are quickly eaten by wildlife. The fall color is a stunning burgundy-red that gives this shrub multi-season interest. This is a great little plant for arid areas and dry spots with good light and lean soils.

You may also know this plant as Bessey’s Cherry.

Core Characteristics

Mature Height: 4-5 feet
Mature Spread: 4-5 feet
Growth Rate: Fast
Growth Form: Broad, shrub-like, suckering, naturalizes
Light Requirements: Full Sun to Partial Shade
Site Requirements: Average, thin soils, well-drained
Flower: White, 5-parted, 1/2”
Bloom Period: May-June, Mid-Late Spring
Foliage: Gray-green, <1” wide
Fall Color: Burgundy-red
Fruit Notes: Purple-black drupes contain (1) large seed. July – Aug, 10-15mm wide

Suggested Uses:

Plant Western Sand Cherry in full sun for the best possible fall color, and flower and fruit production. While self-pollinating and technically not requiring another Prunus to produce fruit, planting multiples will likely result in a larger crop.

Thanks to its suckering habit, Western Sand Cherry could be used as a hedge, barrier, or border planting. Not only will it function as a utilitarian shrub, but in mid-spring, it will be covered in white flowers, and in fall, a beautiful burgundy-red fall color will be displayed. Soil erosion can also be controlled on sand dunes or unstable slopes.

Western Sand Cherry may be used in urban gardens provided there is tolerance and room for this plant to spread. This plant has an affinity for thin, poor soils, so there is no need to baby this species!

Want to attract more birds to your yard? The dark purple fruits will certainly draw in those Cedar Waxwings, Robins, and Bluebirds, but also other wildlife. Even you can go out and enjoy the fruits!

Western Sandy Cherry also tolerates hot, dry, inhospitable locations where little else seems to grow.

Wildlife Value:

The fruit has high wildlife value and is a host plant to an extensive list of butterflies and moths. Below is a non-complete list of those that have cherries (Prunus spp.) as a host plant:

Purple-crested Slug Moth (Adoneta spinuloides), Crowned Slug Moth (Isa textula), Fruit-tree Leafroller Moth (Archips argyrospila), Bella Moth (Utetheisa ornatrix), Spotted Apatelodes Moth (Apatelodes torrefacta), Twin-spotted Sphinx (Smerinthus jamaicensis), Peachtree Borer Moth (Synanthedon exitiosa), Elm Sphinx (Certomia amyntor), Wild Cherry Sphinx (Sphinx drupiferarum), Coleophora querciella, Coral Hairstreak (Satyrium titus), Blinded Sphinx (Paonias excaecata), Cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia), Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe), Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis), Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus), Elegant Tailed Slug Moth (Packardia elegans), Cherry Dagger (Acronicta hasta), Cherry Scallop Shell Moth (Hydria prunivorata), White Furcula Moth (Furcula borealis), Luna Moth (Actias lunata), Tufted Bird-dropping Moth (Cerma cerintha), Io Moth (Automeris io), Giant Leopard Moth (Hypercompe scribonia), Funerary Dagger Moth (Acronicta funeralis), Common Idia (Idia aemula), Skiff Moth (Prolimacodes badia), Lesser Maple Spanworm Moth (Macaria pustularia), Ultronia Underwing (Catocala ultronia), Scallop Moth (Cepphis armataria), One-spotted Variant (Hypagyrtis unipunctata), Hag Moth (Phobetron pithecium), Harris’s Three-spot (Harrisimemna trisignata), Gray Quaker (Orthosia alurina), Crocus Geometer (Xanthotype sospeta), and many, many more.

The fruit will also be eaten by small mammals, gray and red foxes, raccoons, opossums, and black bears.

Birds attracted to the fruits include the Gray Catbird, Northern Mockingbird, Cedar Waxwing, Thrushes, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Ruffed Grouse. The Western Sand Cherry’s bushy habit provides shelter for ground dwellers and nesting habitat for songbirds.

Other winged visitors to Western Sand Cherry include honeybees, Andrenid bees, flies, Halictid bees, Bumble bees, Blue Orchard bees (Osmia lignaria), and Mason bees.

Maintenance Tips:

This species tends to be short-lived (typically less than 20 years).

If you want to enjoy the fruits yourself, be aware there is a pit that needs to be discarded.

This plant tends to get leggy quickly, as it is a vigorous grower. It may need the periodic removal of stems or a cut-back to make it appear more like a shrub. Any pruning is best done in late winter after the threat of extreme cold has passed.


Black Walnut Tolerant: Unknown
Deer Resistant: No
Rabbit Resistant: No

This cherry is no different from the other members in its genus. A plethora of diseases accompanies all cherries/plums/peaches which can cause early demise for the plant. They are beautiful plants, but in the wrong spot, they simply will not last. Be sure to site them properly and prevent disease through proper care.

Leaf Lore:

The young shoots and seeds contain cyanogenic glycosides that when ingested, will break down in the digestive tract to release cyanide. With this in mind, the fruits can be made into jams, jellies, dried, or used fresh.

The genus Prunus is Latin for “plums” and/or “prunes”. The specific epithet besseyi is in honor of Charles E. Bessey, an American botanist.

The Potawatomi used the fruit of sand cherries to improve the flavor of whiskey.

“There is some evidence that sandcherry may be allelopathic. In field and greenhouse studies, extracts from sandcherry leaves completely prevented the germination of Jack Pine seedlings and inhibited seedling growth.”

Companion Plants:

To bring all the birds to the yard, plant along with:

Other plants that enjoy similar site conditions include:

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