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Praise for Prunus

27 March 2015


THE spring equinox has passed. The days lengthen, and the sun's intensity increases.

This triggers spring blossom. "Blossom" is such a loaded word: it says so much more than "flower". It speaks of abundance. It describes a culmination in itself, but also hints at further gifts in the future. Blossoming is a "coming out", a positive phase, and a big step in the right direction. It also has an innocence and brevity about it.

The Church waits to celebrate Easter. The blossom party is under way in the garden, thanks to the flowering cherries - members of the genus Prunus. Most Prunus are just getting into their spring stride now. One coming to the end of its season is the Japanese Apricot, Prunus mume "Ben-shidori". I fell in love with it 20 years ago in the Cambridge Botanical Gardens. I was drawn towards it by the rich madder-pink blossom, and then completely won over, close up, by their almond scent.

I still think it a delightful tree for the smaller garden, as is Prunus "Pandora" with shell-pink blooms, described by Vita Sackville-West as a "puff of cloud, a tuft of tulle"; and Prunus "Accolade", which has slightly darker flowers. The latter two have the added benefit of good orange autumn-leaf colour.

Prunus padus, the bird cherry, is native to northern Europe, including Britain. The cultivar "Colorata", discovered in Sweden, has bronze-red young leaves in spring, which act as a lovely foil for the racemes of pale-pink blooms with creamy green centres. This might suit those of you who call cherry trees blousy. It is somehow more refined, and can easily be kept to shrub-like proportions if needed. The blossom is followed by small, glossy black fruits - bitter to our taste, but loved by the birds.

If pink blossom is not your thing, then how about Prunus "Ukon", which has pale-lemon flowers? Young leaves have a coppery tone, and give a fiery autumn display. For a bridal-white display, Prunus "Tai-haku" has huge single white flowers that contrast beautifully with the bronzy new foliage. A tree in bloom takes on a magical quality at twilight, or by a full moon.

Maybe you cannot see the point of a cherry tree that does not bear edible cherries. If so, I would recommend the Morello cherry, Prunus cerasus. So-called "sour" cherries are easier to grow than "sweet" cherries, and every bit as palatable. Their decline in popularity is probably because they have a short season and shelf-life, making them awkward for supermarket merchandising. You have to wait until the fruit has taken on an inky darkness before eating them straight from the tree, but their high acidity gives them a superb flavour, when they are still red, for use in pies, preserves, and puddings.

If you decide to plant a cherry tree this spring, you need to commit to regular watering over the coming summer. Perhaps best to peruse the catalogues - and better still to visit an arboretum, or botanic garden, make a note of your favourite, and order in the autumn.

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