There are lots of different types of Japanese cherry planted in the garden at Winterbourne. We’ve got Prunus x yedoensis planted in the Geographical Beds, with single white flowers blooming in March and April. There’s a Prunus ‘Kanzan’ with double pink flowers that blooms slightly later in the Car Park. And blooming even later still – often into May – is a brilliant Prunus ‘Fugenzo’ with double pale-pink flowers planted in the Old Meadow.
These are large specimens but there are smaller species better suited to the ordinary sized back garden. Prunus ‘Kiku-shidare-zakura’ has a lovely weeping habit and double pink flowers. It’s fairly small at 2.5m to 5m in height. Or you could try Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-no-mai’ – the small Fuji cherry – which is really a large shrub, rather than a tree, at only 1.5m to 2.5m high.
There are many myths and folk tales related to the wild cherry in Great Britain but the Ornamental Cherry takes these to a whole other level in Japan.
The annual viewing of the cherry blooms, sakura, is known as hanami, has been celebrated almost religiously for centuries, with mention in literature dating as far back as the Nara period, The custom was originally limited to the elite of the Imperial Court, but soon spread to samurai society and eventually to the general populace. It involves drinking a sake toast and picnicking under a blossoming tree and millions follow the northward progression of the blooms every year. Signs are even erected at bus and train stations directing pilgrims to the best local blooms!
The sakura, cherry blossoms, have a wistful meaning in all cultures, representing the fleeting nature of life. Cherry blossoms have short and sweet lives, however, they are seen to symbolize both birth and death, beauty and violence.
They were embraced as a symbol by the samauri warriors, symbolising their beautiful but brief lives. More recently Sakura emblems were painted on the planes of kamikaze pilots during World War II. The government even encouraged the belief that the souls of downed warriors were reincarnated in the blossoms.
The tree itself has had many uses over history.
Medicinally the resin, which leaks from the trunk, has been noted as a treatment for coughs, and dissolved in wine, it was used to treat gall stones and kidney stones. Children even chewed it as a form of chewing gum. None of which would be advised today as we now know that the bark, leaves and seeds all contain highly poisonous cyanogenic glycosides!
The bark can be used to make fabric dyes, ranging in colour from cream to tan, while a reddish-purple is derived from the roots. It also gives of an acrid smell which was unpleasant enough to induce people to believe it could ward off the plague.
Batsford Arboretum in Gloucestershire (England), holds the national collection of Japanese village cherries, sato-sakura group and Keele University in Staffordshire (England), has one of the UK’s largest collections of flowering cherries, with more than 150 varieties!
Cherries look great planted with Japanese maples especially Acer palmatum ‘Dissectum’. Ophiopogen planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’, which has striking black foliage, can be used as ground cover beneath, alongside drought-tolerant daffodils and other spring-flowering bulbs. Hardy Cyclamen establish well under trees, as do European species of Epimedium which often have pale yellow or pink flowers in spring paired with bronzy, evergreen foliage.
Cherries can suffer from lots of different problems in the garden. Silver leaf is perhaps the most common causing leaves to silver and wither. Cherry Leaf Spot causes shot holing and premature leaf drop, and Blossom Wilt will kill blossoms. With all cases it’s important to remove infected parts of the tree as quickly as possible to help prevent further damage.