For hundreds of years, Cherries trees have been cultivated in the Far East for their ornamental blossoms. These same trees are now being planted in Britain there they bring a welcome splash of color to our towns and cities in spring.
Among the most attractive of all the trees in Britain are the ornamental cherries. So-called because they are planted for their appearance rather than for their fruits, which are usually inedible. Ornamental cherries are becoming increasingly popular in towns and cities since many are small compact trees, ideal for growing in the confined space of a street or a small garden,
There is now a wide range of varieties to choose from, with differing flower colors and branching patterns. Even outside their flowering period, some ornamental cherries have distinct and beautiful harks and on many, the leaves are brightly colored, both in spring when they emerge and in autumn before they fall.
Britain’s native cherries, the gean or wild cherry, and the bird cherry have been valued for their ornamental qualities for hundreds of years. But almost all the ornamental cherries being planted nowadays originate in the Far East, especially in China and Japan. Both these countries have a profusion of cherry species growing wild. Which have long been cultivated for their ornamental value rather than for their fruits. In Japan, especially, flowering cherries are venerated.
Temples, shrines, and other holy places are planted with them. They are frequent subjects for Japanese art and there is a host of legends and traditional stories surrounding them. Japan is famous for its massed plantations of cherries, which attract hundreds of thousands of visitors at blossom time each year.
The oriental Cherries were introduced to Europe during, the 19th century when trade routes to the Far East were opened up. But many of the varieties that had been cultivated in the East for so long arrived in Britain only during this century. Their introduction and subsequent popularization were due to one man-Captain Collingwood Ingram.
The first oriental cherry to be introduced to Britain was the Japanese cherry (Prunus serrulata), also known as the oriental cherry. It arrived in Britain in 1822 from Canton in China, though it is more commonly grown in Japan. Where are varieties of this species are greatly treasured and known as Sato Zakura (Japanese liar ‘village cherries`). Despite its popularity in Japan, this species is actually native to China but was introduced to Japan many hundreds of years ago.
The Japanese Cherries is the most widely planted ornamental cherry in Britain. And the hundreds of varieties that have been developed around the world, at least 60 are grown here. They differ mainly in the color and arrangement of the flowers and in the flowering period. They all have purple-brown barks with rows of protruding lenticels.
The leaves, which are oval with a long, tapering point and toothed margins, turn a handsome pink, red, or golden-yellow in the autumn. Japanese cherries can grow as tall as 15m (50ft), but most are much shorter than this.
Common varieties The most popular variety of Japanese cherry grown in Britain is ‘Kanzan’, which hears masses of deep pink, produced that the branches, which for most of the year are fairly upright, hang down under the weight.
Another commonly grown variety is ‘Shimidsu’, which has pendulous branching clusters of flowers. Each cluster consists of three to six large, white, double flowers. They open just after `Kanzan1 in late April or early May. Two other common varieties with very different habits are `Amanogawa’ and `Cheat’s Weeping’.
The former has a narrow upright shape and resembles a Lombardy poplar; its flowers are pink and semi-double. The latter variety has very pendulous branches that may almost touch the ground; its flowers can be either pink or white. Both these varieties flower earlier than `Kanzan’.
The variety ‘Tai-Haku’ has a most unusual history. In 1923, Captain Collingwood Ingram noticed an unusual cherry tree growing in a garden in Sussex. At first, he could not identify it; but, during a visit to Japan, he discovered that it used to grow there but became extinct during the 18th century.
The Japanese called it ‘Tai-Haku’. Ingram later reintroduced it into its native country, but no one yet knows how it came to be growing in a Sussex garden. The flowers of `Tai¬1-1aku’ are white and spectacularly large up to 8cm (3in) across, which is larger than those of any other variety.
Sargent’s cherry is another popular ornamental species is Sargent’s cherry (Prunus sargentii). This is named after Charles Surgent, of the Arnold Arboretum in Boston USA. Who on a visit to Japan in 1890 discovered it growing on the slopes of Mount Fujiyama? Sargent’s cherry sometimes grows as tall as 20m (65ft), which is a notable height for a cherry.
The bark resembles that of the Japanese cherry, except that it is smoother and glossy. The flowers open in the middle of April and are borne in clusters of two to five densely massed along the branches. The flowers themselves are pink and single.
The leaves on a Sargent’s cherry are also attractive. Appearing slightly after the flowers have opened, they are reddish-purple at first and, with the pink flowers, make a striking combination of colors.
As the leaves mature they turn dark green, but in autumn become a spectacular bright orange or crimson. Sargent’s cherry is one of the first trees to change color in the autumn, often as early as the beginning of September. In shape, its leaves resemble the leaves of a Japanese cherry.
This is another species of ornamental cherry native to Japan. The rose-bud cherry (Prunus subhiriella) is also known as the spring cherry was introduced to Britain in 1895. There are many varieties of this species, including those with double flowers and others with a weeping habit. But one variety in particular, `Autumnalis’, is especially popular since it flowers throughout the winter.
Not surprisingly, it is also known as the winter-flowering Cherries. The majority of its pale pink flowers appear in November or April, but in between these months a small number of flowers regularly appear on its otherwise bare branches. In the wild, the rose-bud cherry can grow to a height of 20m (651t), though cultivated trees are usually much smaller.
Not all ornamental cherries are grown for their flowers. The Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrula) is planted primarily for its unusual and attractive bark. In autumn the outer bark peels away in narrow bands from the trunk and branches to reveal new bark of rich mahogany-brown color with rings of paler lenticels.
Unfortunately, the flowers are relatively insignificant for an ornamental cherry, being small and white. Since they emerge at the same time as the leaves, they tend to be obscured. The Tibetan cherry is native to western China and was introduced to Britain in 1908. In cultivation, it grows to a height of about 8m.
A Profusion of Hybrids
These four species and their varieties cover most of the ornamental cherries grown in Britain. But there are also many hybrids that have been developed from these and other species. One particularly common hybrid is the Yoshino cherry (Prunus x yedoensis), which is a cross between the rose-bud cherry and the Oshino cherry. The Yoshino is one of the earliest cherries to flower, appearing in March. The single flowers are pink or white. Many other hybrids and varieties are still being developed.
The Tibetan cherry is unusual among ornamental cherries in being planted for its brightly colored bark rather than its flowers. Its bark is at its best in the autumn, when the outer layer peels away in bands to reveal rich mahogany-Coloured new bark.