Life

The Casual Gardener: Cherry on top

Cherry blossom heralds the arrival of spring in dramatic fashion but we shouldn't take this annual extravaganza for granted

A ‘Taihaku’ flowering cherry, AKA the great white cherry, much coveted by ornamental cherry lovers

I'VE got at least four different types of cherry tree in my garden. There's an obligatory pair of flowering cherries (Prunus ‘Taihaku'); an edible cherry (P. ‘Stella'), and the natives wild cherry (P. avium) and bird cherry (P. padus). They all boast blossom, ranging from pure white to deep pink, at different times over spring, the ornamental varieties naturally putting all the others to shame in terms of floral profusion.

This year, due to the cold weather, the blossom across Ireland has been late and subdued, though in subsequent years a milder, more settled spring will inevitably signal a brighter, prolonged display.

In Japan, where Prunus serrulata or Japanese cherry (Sakura in Japanese) originates, the blossom is both a national treasure and an annual ritual.

The cherry and its various cultivars form the centrepiece of Japan's Hanami festival – a spring spectacle where the blossom's unfurling is mapped as it advances north with the arrival of warmer weather.

The first flowers are announced on the main evening television bulletin, apparently prompting raucous celebrations, with more than two million festival-goers converging on Tokyo's Ueno Park to take part in what is said to be a centuries-old tradition.

In recent years, however, Japan's famed blooms have faced a potentially mortal threat from an invasive foreign pest that has made its way from the east Asian mainland.

Aromia bungii, more commonly known as the red-necked longhorn beetle, makes its home inside the trunk of the Prunus genus – cherry, plum, apricot, peach and ornamental species.

The beetle was first spotted on Japan's central Honshu island in 2012 and is thought to have hitched a ride on imported wood materials. The impact of Japan's redneck invasion has been quite severe, with thousands of trees being cut down to contain the insect.

Four years previously, according to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in Britain, the beetle was intercepted among wooden pallets in a Bristol warehouse. The next reported occurrence of the species breaching ‘fortress Europe' was in Bavaria, Germany in 2011, where the insect infested an old damson tree. They've also had issues with the red-necked longhorn in Lombardia, Italy.

Thus far, in no small part thanks to the bio-security border down the Irish Sea – and North Channel – Aromia bungii has yet to turn up in Ireland.

For a pest invasion to rob us gardeners of this explosion of flowers would be a tragedy, as nothing heralds the start of the growing season quite as dramatically as spring blossom.

The appeal of blossom lies in its impact after months of greyness and cold. The sight of leafless trees with abundant white, pale pink or pink blossoms in single, semi-double or double flowers, quickly banishes the memories of winter and fills us with expectation of the months ahead.

Bird cherry and wild cherry are great for woodlands and/or hedgerows but for a specimen that's going to deliver real impact it has to be one of the ornamental varieties – those cultivated for their flowers rather than fruit.

However, be careful not to plant trees too close to your house as their roots have been known to interfere with foundations.

Much coveted by ornamental cherry lovers is the aforementioned ‘Taihaku', AKA the great white cherry.

An excellent choice as a specimen, this vigorous tree needs plenty of room, as it will grow up 20ft tall and spread up to 30ft. A holder of the RHS's Award of Garden Merit, its leaves have a bronze tinge when young, colouring yellow and orange in the autumn.

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