The somewhat hairy cherry Posted on January 20, 2008

Floods, thank God, at least of the rising sort, are not going to engulf us on a gravelly flat in Essex . We all say it would be nice to have a bit of good crisp weather, even to see a frozen pond, even to get the skates out for the first time in years. Half-thrilled, half-uneasy (even, illogically with a pang of guilt) we are enjoying an absurdly early spring. January 18th saw the warmest January night (at 13 degrees) ever recorded in England . Birds are not necessarily good meteorologists, but their singing this morning sent a thrill through me like the first smell of growing grass. The sense that we have got through the darkest part is a powerful pleasure, and how can you not revel in plumped up primroses?

If I were limited to a single small tree in this climate my choice, I’ve decided, would be the ‘autumn-flowering’ cherry, Prunus subhirtella autumnalis. Its November flowering, a scatter of pink or white confetti among its slender branches, is hardly a spectacle. Nor does it bravely outface ice and snow. It is an opportunistic flower, a chancer that will flower whenever the weather smiles.

In London , where the temperature rarely dips to freezing these days, it can dress itself time and again in its pale frilly flowers all winter long. Other cherries lugubriously block the view all summer with their heavy leaves. Little subhirtella (it means ‘somewhat hairy’, a sad indication of a botanist’s poetry-free soul) has tiny leaves that cast hardly any shade and turn pleasantly yellow and orange in autumn.

I’m not sure whether I prefer the pink or the white-flowering version. Having the luxury of space I grow both, several of them, scattered through the garden wherever I have stopped on a winter’s day and seen a dark background that needed cheering up. Even now I can round a corner and be surprised by a starburst (O.K., sub-starburst) of pink or white against gloomy green or grey.

In France, when we lived in the Auvergne, we grew a scaled-up version of what seems to be the same tree, a little more vigorous, with slightly larger and it seemed to me more numerous flowers. I found it in a nursery that had lost its name. The only name I have found that seems to apply is Prunus subhirtella ‘Fukubana’. I must find it and plant it here in England to be sure.

Little subhirtella seems to be a long-lived tree by Japanese cherry standards. The real painted Geishas of the race, in my experience, grow and flower furiously at first but burn out disappointingly young. ‘Tai Haku’, the so-called Great White Cherry, lasted only ten years here and none of the wide-spreading ‘Shirofugen’, with their billows of double pink flowers, has survived longer than forty years from planting. Out latest loss is a great favourite, ‘Jo-nioi’ a tall vase-shaped white-flowering tree with single flowers that have the best scent of any I know. Last May people were reading its label and writing down its name.

This spring it will have a score of flowers and leaves and die.

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