The cherry blossom season is not following the rules. In England it is three weeks early and in Japan and South Korea it is early by as much as a month. In these countries it is connected with festivals, drinking and special excursion tickets on cherry blossom trains. An entire support system is quite unprepared for the viewing season to begin in March.
To my surprise, there are gardeners who are not bothered. They refuse to plant cherries because they are street trees or because they are in flower for just a week. Increasingly, I am fascinated by the entire family. They grow easily and survive dry summers. A few of them grow into silly shapes. The rest include my first choices among all garden trees.
There is no substitute for seeing a good one in flower. Photographs never do them justice and we should all believe the greatest of Japanese observers, the lady-in waiting Sei Shonagon. She wrote shortly before the year 1,000 and her Pillow Book amazes us.
She loved lists. Flowering cherries were certainly not on her list of Squalid Things, which included the inside of a cat’s ear. Nor were they on her list of Things That Should Be Short, which included the haircuts of women from the lower classes. Cherries were much more honoured. They featured on her list of Things That Lose By Being Painted. The list also included yellow roses and women who were praised in romances for being beautiful.
I agree with my great heroine of letters. Cherry blossoms have to be seen to be believed. I cannot agree, however, with her alarming admiration for fake blossom, when the real thing was damaged or missing. She and her contemporaries are the first people in literature to praise sham flowers. A thousand years later we gardeners need to answer back.
One way to answer is to plant the Prunus Accolade. It won every honour 50 years ago on the prosaic lists of the Royal Horticultural Society. It is a strong hybrid between two wild species and carries a prolific crop of semi-double pink flowers on spreading branches, where they hang in a charming style. The pink is a delicate shade and I recommend the tree for anyone who can allow it a degree of width and a height up to 15ft.
I do not think that Shonagon ever saw another natural hybrid, the wonderful Prunus yedoensis or Yoshino Cherry. It reached us from Japan only in 1902 and nobody knows exactly where it originated. It is my best performer, a tree whose branches arch sideways and are covered with white flowers early in the cherry season. They last about a week but they also have a rare scent. Seven good days in flower are better than a month of flower on a bad type of heather.
The brightest small cherry of all is another Japanese variety, the widely forgotten Fukubana. It is at its best this weekend, and its semi-double flowers are a striking shade of rich-rose red. I am trying to find room for a pair of these which will be added to my personal list of Things Worth Loving.
Gardeners need to remember that the cherries extend over different seasons. If you choose carefully, you can have at least two months of them in sequence whenever the season decides to begin. My own season is even longer because I insist on the wonderful Winter Cherry, a variety that has only now stopped flowering after four intermittent months. My favourite early variety in spring is the deep acid-pink Kursar, which is a magnificent small tree, even for a front garden where it will slowly reach up to 10ft. Accolade then takes over but I still entertain hopes of cherry blossom far into May.
In a normal year two superb late varieties will be at their best in the week of May’s Chelsea Flower Show. They grow into very different shapes. The neatest is a Japanese variety called Amangawa, which is a small tree in the shape of a pillar. The branches grow upright and hold bunches of big semi-double pale pink flowers. On a cool evening the scent is charming. Try to site it where the shape of a pillar is needed. It is by far the best of the small upright cherries and it grows very well.
The white-flowered late Prunus longipes is altogether different. It need not be tall but it must be able to spread widely, finding room for the superb double white flowers, which hang in clusters on long stems along the branches’ span. My two trees are now nearly 20 years old but they are still only 10ft high. They have never given me any trouble but they might be better if I had trimmed the lower branches when they first arrived. They have developed all down a short trunk but they are well suited to their position against a background hedge. Of all cherries they are the ones nowadays that would lose most by being painted. The only problem is their Japanese name, Shimidsu Sakura. Catalogues now use it and it should not frighten you away.
I do not find that any of these varieties looks dull when the flowers have fallen. They never catch a disease and the roots are not so greedy that it is impossible to plant anything near them. Their only supposed vice could better be seen as a virtue. The flowers are not long lived but we should learn by the trees’ eastern enthusiasts and acknowledge the quality of transience. A thousand years ago flower-lovers were specially moved by flowers which vanished in a few days. Now we all insist on summer-to-autumn petunias. Think of cherries as poignant, temporary beauties, to be prized more intensely. They will then go back on your personal lists of Things to be Planted, but not faked.
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