In praise of ... Japanese cherries
For beekeepers, the joy of ornamental cherry blossom lies not just in its appearance, welcome though that is after months of winter monochrome. It’s also the sound of contented bees feeding on the nectar, which on a warm spring afternoon fills the garden with a happy hum.
Ornamental cherries, like all fruit trees and their cultivated varieties, put on their spectacular early show specifically for bees and other pollinators, getting in quick before there is too much competition from other sources such as herbaceous plants and trees.
If you are one of those people who think that Japanese cherries are just a little bit suburban, then you’d be right. Their popularity in Britain was fuelled by the growth of the new suburbs in the 1920s and 1930s, which mushroomed out from cities and towns across land that had previously been used for grazing and hay.
In 1900, there were around a million working horses in the UK, but by 1914, thanks to the advent of the motor car, this number had dropped to less than 25,000. (So many horses were requisitioned for the Great War that by 1918, some British breeds were in danger of extinction.) Conversely, there was a huge demand for housing. The population in England nearly doubled between 1851 and 1901, and the number of houses in the UK as a whole rose from eight million at the end of the First World War to 12 million by 1939.
Despite the growth of new housing on the former hay meadows in the suburbs, there was still less pressure on space than in the city, so the new homes had front and back gardens, and a more organised approach to street planting. The new owners didn’t want huge trees like London planes, which would have been out of scale and looked too urban. They wanted something that was smaller, and prettier, and more suited to their idea of a quasi-rustic lifestyle. Step forward the ornamental Japanese cherry, and the man who did so much to popularise them, Captain “Cherry” Collingwood Ingram.
When it comes to heroes, we British seem to reserve a special place in our hearts for those who are multi-talented. W G Grace, for example, retained his amateur status despite being one of England’s greatest cricketers because his day job was being a GP. Leonard Cheshire, war hero and founder of the care homes charity named after him, was a member of the All England Lawn Tennis Club and a formidable amateur player. More recently we have Brian Cox, who followed pop fame with a professorship in particle physics.
Cherry Ingram may not be such a familiar name, but even the Japanese acknowledged that he knew more about their cherries than they did, especially after he reintroduced Prunus serrulata ‘Tai Haku’, or the Great White Cherry, to Japan in the late 1920s, where it was thought to be extinct.
Horticulture was not Ingram’s first passion. He spent the first 40 years of his life as a keen ornithologist, and he was a member of the British Ornithologists’ Union for a record 81 years. The journals he wrote while he was a compass officer with the Royal Flying Corps, published as Wings over the Western Front, detail many of the birds he saw on his reconnaissance flights across the French countryside. (He reprised his military career during the Second World War, when he took command of his local Home Guard in 1940.)
He also collected Japanese art, in particular netsuke, tiny carved figures in ivory or wood. He had such a good collection, he donated it to the British Museum, and it was his interest in Japanese culture, and his birdwatching trips to Japan, that fuelled his enthusiasm for Japanese cherry trees.
Many of the ornamental cultivars we grow today are Prunus serrulata, or sakura, as it is called in Japan. ‘Tai Haku’ is still a popular choice, as is ‘Kanzan’, ‘Shirofugen’, ‘Ukon’ and the columnar ‘Amonogawa’. However, there are ornamental cherries to suit all purposes and all gardens, such as the dwarf Fuji cherry, such as ‘Kojo-no-mai’, which will grow quite happily in a pot.
They are not particularly fussy as to soil, but they do like to be in full sun, and they don’t like drying out. So if you are planting a young tree, make sure that it is watered well throughout its first season. It’s very easy to forget once those spectacular flowers have faded.
Britain has two native cherry trees - the bird cherry (Prunus padus) and the wild cherry (Prunus avium). It is the wild cherry, or gean, that A E Housman was describing in his poem:
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now.
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride,
Wearing white for Eastertide.