It’s the nice irony of spring that its bright colours and sweet scents arrive simultaneously with biting cold air. Not cold enough, happily, to discourage the heroic little autumn cherry. It takes hard frost, harder than any we have seen in London for many seasons, to spoil the tiny flowers that keep coming from well before Christmas, even late November, until March, or even April.
It’s far from being an original choice, but limited to one tree in a little town garden, is there any better? Its modest presence, light structure, good health, but above all the charm of its months-long flowering has no real rival. If there is a secret to managing it, it is to keep it fairly small. Discourage any hearty growth. Mine is restricted by a 14-inch plastic pot buried in the ground. I’m not sure what goes on down there; I imagine a tight-curled ball of roots. Once it tried a break-out; a root leap-frogged the rim of the pot and began a vigorous freelance career before I noticed it (and a corresponding vigour in the canopy) and chopped it off. Bonsai treatment, in fact, but with no ill results. It forms a delicate pink centrepiece in the green winter garden; I can scarcely ask for more.
Its name, though: Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’. Whichever botanist coined the name shared the tin ear of many colleagues – but also their short sight. ‘Hirtella’ means ‘hairy’. ‘Sub signifies ‘slightly’. So we are celebrating the slight hairiness of the twigs of a tree that is regaling winter with its mass of delicate flowers. The Japanese have a more expressive name for it. They call it ‘Higan’, the spring equinox, more or less when it is in full bloom – which also means ‘the far shore’, where our ancestors are to be found. So in future it’s Prunus ‘Higan’ for me.