In the old days, with scant regard for the rules, we just called it ‘Japonica’. Scarcely a garden was without this obliging little bush that bursts into bright colours at tulip time. Like forsythia, it is easy to overlook or dismiss as a cliché, yet about the time of the blackthorn winter (a fortnight later, like everything else, this year), long before the azaleas, or its cousins the roses open their flowers, and even on dank north walls, Japonica is up and doing.
Chaenomeles is not hard to say, but more important is to remember which variety you have, or would like to have. My clear favourite is the pure white “Nivalis”, which also seems, round here, to be the earliest in flower; even this year, in London gardens, performing in late March. There is something touching about its simple five virginal petals spreading wide so soon.
The showiest, and I suspect the most popular, are C. Knap Hill Scarlet and Crimson and Gold, both as full-on as tulips in confronting the grey of the end of winter. We inherited the only one I would have chosen not to plant, a rather washed-out tangerine flower which I think is called Cameo. Pastel orange just doesn’t go with anything else in the garden – unless perhaps I were to add Ballerina tulips.
Instead I’m trying to offer it some complementary blue. I’m watching a young Clematis alpina inching up into its branches; hoping that will justify its out-of-context orange. Come to think of it, why not Ballerina next year? And for that matter blue Scilla sibirica? Better to make a real point of something than to wish it weren’t there.