In Japan, the arrival of cherry blossom is cause for holiday abandon: salary man leaves his office to find the most special trees and picnics under the petals, toasting spring and the gods. This annual frenzy of celebration is not done here, but even the most hardened urbanite must admit that there is still something miraculous about how spring builds up in layers: first the snowdrops, then the daffs, next the blackthorn followed by wild cherries and damsons before the advent of the Japanese flowering cherries, and finally the fruit blossom of quinces, apples and pears. And with each new layer the degree of sophistication increases and the impact becomes more imperative. The Japanese flowering cherries are a broad church and not restricted to the ubiquitous bright pink double cherries so beloved of Local Council landscaping departments.
We have one particular man to thank for the omnipresence of cherry trees in England, Collingwood "Cherry" Ingrams. In creating his own garden in Kent he took himself to Japan in the 1920s on a plant collecting mission and became the world authority on Japanese cherries. He lived to 101, bred his own hybrids and introduced many Japanese varieties to Britain. He also returned the favour by recognising that a rather lacklustre specimen white cherry tree he had spotted in Sussex was in fact the very last in the line of the revered Great White Cherry Tree (Prunus serrula Tai Haku), considered extinct and lost to Japan many years before.
In his garden in Kent, The Grange at Benenden, he planted sylvan glades of different species of cherry and magnolia. The garden remains extant and is tended by the residents of the Grange, now a care home for adults with learning difficulties. There is no public access but the trees are still there.
Another Mecca for cherry trees is Batsford arboretum, which was planted by Algernon Freeman-Mitford, a diplomat and Japanophile who laid out the gardens in Oriental style and filled them with flowering cherries. After his death, his son inherited the house and moved in with his five daughters, the infamous Mitford sisters. Batsford is very much open to the public and as close as you are going to get to the Japanese cherry blossom experience without needing to fly several thousand miles. Sake is optional.
Flowering cherries are generally easy to grow, putting up with all soils except the waterlogged variety. This can be advantageous in a small garden with heavy clay soil because the tree will not grow away to its optimal height making it a viable choice. It is worth pointing out that when grown in a lawn the shallow roots can be awkward to mow around or over, and cherry trees should not be grown close to paving stones, paths or foundations for fear that the roots will lift them. As ever, the flowers are most bounteous in full sun but will still be spectacular in partial shade and the trees do not require pruning - their haphazard habit is part of their charm. If, for some reason it is necessary to cut a branch back, wait until August to do so. Suckers are another matter: if they appear at the union where the tree was grafted, whip them off immediately.
When planting, consider also how the Japanese place their cherry trees. They tend to position the double flowered varieties singly in important and often sacred sites, while the single -flowering ones were used in groups and mass plantings. As the blossom is the overriding reason for growing these trees, avoid planting them in a windy, exposed site or blink.... and you will miss the show and just be repaid with a petal blizzard. While they do not like wind, they flourish in pollution choked cities.
Their main attraction in the garden is blossom, and their autumn colour is a close runner up. All flowering cherries have magnificent, blazing autumn leaves, even if they do not have any fruit to go with it.
Being greedy feeders (enrich your soil before planting, not least to try to improve drainage) and shallow rooted they are not a tree for a border with their reasonably heavy shade also ruling out much underplanting. Instead, plant them in open ground or on the edge of woodland and consider bulbs like aconites and snowdrops which you can plant as bulbs in the green or Muscari (grape hyacinth)and Narcissi or tulips in hues that will flatter the blossom. For me, that rules out bright yellow daffs with bright pink blossom but chacun a son gout.
Hellebores do well in the shade and their plum to white hues tend to interplay well with cherry blossoms. Dicentra spectabilis (Love lies bleeding to you or me) and Polyganatum (Solomon's seal) are also shade lovers that will turn your cherry from plain tree to garden focal point.
To move from the general to choosing a specific cherry you will mainly be swayed by colour - pink or white or somewhere in between. The exception is the lovely Ukon which has gorgeous creamy coloured flowers, verging on the yellow (although I hardly dare use the word since so many people are phobic about yellow in their garden). Perhaps "buttery" it better. Other factors are shape - columnar or spreading; single or double flowers and then size of tree - small, medium or large. Size is always a bit of a lottery because much depends on how and where it is planted. Short of drawing up a matrix of all the factors we thought we would just focus on colour as the clincher.
The most unusual coloured cherry is the Ukon, as mentioned above, and it is also one of the latest flowering with a low but large, spreading habit like a lacy bridal veil. At the white end of the spectrum, Tai Haku is the purest, most unadulterated white cherry ever and acts like a glorious lantern in a sheltered or even shady spot. The name Great White cherry refers not so much to the size of the tree but to the size of its flowers which are ginormous in cherry blossom terms being single and up to 5 cm across. Its leaves are a wonderful metallic bronze initially that greens up over the summer on red stems - all pretty special but it is a large tree and needs space for all of that spreading canopy.
Prunus serrula Tibetica is not strictly in the club but should be included for its single white flowers on well spaced branches that make for dappled rather than full shade and so makes it a candidate for a small garden because you can grow things under it. Its burnished mahogany bark glows in the winter sun, elevating it to that rarefied elite of plants that have garden interest in all four seasons.
The pale pink section belongs to Prunus Sargentii, Prunus Spire and Prunus Accolade. Prunus Sargentii has substantial single flowers set against copper purple serrated leaves that exhibit the most memorable autumn colours in the group. The flowers are held close to the stem and appear in small groups. Unusually it often produces fruit too.
Prunus hillieri Spire has a columnar habit and deep pink buds, single flowers held close to the stem and coppery foliage when young. Its slim proportions fit well in small gardens, although it will spread a little bit when it gets older. Prunus Accolade has a well deserved AGM and is another small but spreading tree. Its rumpled, large semi-double pink puffs of flowers grow close together and come early in the season. Because it is bred from Prunus subhirtella Autumnalis, you may also find have some bonus winter blossom. The blowsy, frilly flowers are dainty and delicious, and the orange autumn foliage is among the best.
Anyone in the market for a more hefty pink should try Prunus Kanzan, the classic double, mid-pink cherry flower with a frilly edge and not a leaf in sight until late spring. Each bough is like several bouquets and the tree grows to about 10 metres tall. Prunus Shirofugen is more of a symphony of pink and white flowers that dangle irresistibly from the branches as they develop from deep pink buds to white flowers that then darken to a deep pink with age. They are late to emerge but then persist on the tree even up to June. The early flowering Prunus Kikushidare is also a mid-pink colour, and is notable for its small size and weeping habit. The slightly pointed double flowers are large and hang in clusters.
You have Prunus Rancho, which is the direct opposite of Kiku-Shidare, and is the most fastigiate (thin and upright) of the cherry trees; it keeps its colunnar shape into maturity unlike Spire, which tends to spread in middle age: perhaps you know the feeling. Rancho boasts deep, magenta-pink flowers that emerge before any of its leaves. Like Prunus serrula Tibetica, Rancho has a dark red bark that looks glossy and glows in winter sun.
The other truly bright and vivid pink blossom is found on Prunus Okame whose flowers are unmistakeable, being almost red. They arrive very early and are single and sprinkled through the stems rather than "ruched" along them. In this way it keeps to this side of being tasteful while almost being shrub like because it tends to produce its branches quite low down on its stem.
Apart from the Japanese varieties, there are wilder flowering cherries: Prunus padus aka Bird cherry (self-evidently because birds love the fruits in autumn) are lovely, proud looking large trees with a more natural face.