Japanese joy to behold

David Overend savours the big bang as cherry trees explode with colour.

Ornamental cherry
Ornamental cherry

Did George Washington really chop down that cherry tree? If he did, then he must have had good reason. And if he did, it wasn’t one of those in-your-face, flowering-for-a-few-days types that are currently exploding in parks and gardens throughout Britain.

When George was a lad, cherry trees were a lot more restrained in their behaviour. Then came the Japanese and their ornamental cherry trees. These wonderful orientals burst forth in March and April, peppering the landscape with outrageous explosions of colour. Such is their popularity that, seemingly, no street (or garden) is complete without one.

Once upon a time they took the nation’s heart by storm. We learn with experience – while many of these trees are masterpieces of colour, their roots can have a nasty habit of creeping along just below the surface, wreaking havoc on paths and lawns.

And their inability to withstand spring weather means that the blooms are short-lived – whipped away to clog up drains and gutters, falling from grace to become nothing more than piles of dirty horticultural confetti.

Still, you can’t have everything, and before that annual bitter blow, the Japanese can be joys to behold – at least for a couple of weeks.

Prunus “Kiku-shidare zakura” is a name that takes no prisoners, but is one of the best ornamental cherries for the smaller garden; in fact, many consider it the finest weeping variety. In April, it bursts out in a mass of double, rose-pink flowers.

Its cousin, P “Amanogawa” is a close rival, but displays its charms as a column of shell-pink blooms.

Neither, however, has been as popular as P “Kanzan”, the gaudiest of them all, with purple-pink flowers which, if left undisturbed, gradually tone down as the season progresses.

But perhaps the finest of them all waits until autumn when it can show the world just what an ornamental cherry can do. P sargentii flowers well enough in spring, but in late September it rivals the maples for brilliant leaf colour – the entire tree becomes a blaze of orange and crimson.

One or two other members of the illustrious family have something more to offer than just a few brief days of spring wonder. P serrula, from China, makes a big impact not for its flowers, but for its bark.

If George Washington were alive today, perhaps he’d have spared that tree.