The cherry on the cake

Cherry trees have been in flower for several weeks although you will have had to look closely to spot them because these cherries are not the gaudy spring-blooming varieties, but the more restrained autumn/winter flowerers.

And they are still blooming – quietly and efficiently, providing tiny breaths of life at a time when a lot of nature has got its head down until the temperature takes a turn for the better.

Just because they are conservative with a lower-case "c" doesn't mean they don't deserve a round of applause.

I blame the Japanese.

They have a yen for a good product; they once took the world by storm with their exports.

They also know a bit about gardening, although many of their gardens are carefully planned with plants grown in harmony with their surroundings. Understated green is just as important as in-your-eye colour; rocks and gravel can be just as important as things which grow. Until you get to the cherry tree, the Japanese ornamental cherry tree. 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.

They are relatively easy and once upon a time 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 soil 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 'Kuki-shidare sakura' 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 its charms as a column of shell-pink blooms. Neither, however, have 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.

Remember that cherry which is flowering now?

Well, that's P subhirtella ' Autumnalis' which spends several months producing a steady supply of tiny white or pinkish flowers like Christmas fairy lights. Jewels on bare branches.

And p serrula is another ornamental – this time from China – which makes a big impact; not for its flowers, but for its bark. Imagine mahogany red...

And last but not least, the late-flowering P 'Shirofugen' (White God) which produces large double blooms opening to white and fading to deep pink.

Its autumn show is not quite up to that of P sargentii, but it is a fine finale from a lovely tree.

YP MAG 8/1/11