Hanami, the cherry blossom festival
The appearance of snowdrops in February and the rivers of golden daffodils in March are some of the early flowering events we’ve just enjoyed, both helping to mark the start of a new year in the garden.
We’re now enjoying the blossoming of cherry trees which also marks the season, but the cultural significance in the UK is nothing like what it is in Japan, where the timing of the cherry blossom is forecast on TV on special ‘sakura forecasts’ alongside the weather report. The coming of spring and the blossoming of the cherry trees (sakura) is celebrated with the festival of ‘hanami’, meaning ‘flower-viewing’, where people gather, picnic and party beneath the blossoming trees.
As part of the 2019-20 Japan-UK Season of Culture, 6,500 cherry trees have been donated to UK parks, gardens and schools, from the Sakura Cherry Tree Project. Over 450 schools and 160 public parks will benefit, creating a wave of cherry blossom from late March to early May, starting at St. Ives in Cornwall and moving northwards to trees planted as far north as the Orkney Islands. Find out more at japanuksaukura.org.
Many of the suburban avenues of ornamental cherries in the UK were planted in the 1930s and 40s. Sadly, they are not long-lived trees, especially in an urban setting where their vigorous shallow root system causes issues with kerbs and paving, and so the era of residential areas festooned with cherry blossom in spring may slowly come to end as they are replaced with different trees. Fear of building subsidence also makes people hesitant to choose them as a garden tree, but with the right tree choice the risk can be avoided.
For the postage stamp garden, narrow upright forms such as the columnar Prunus ‘Amanogawa’ and V-shaped Prunus ‘Spire’ are suitable, although they do get tall and lack the attractive spreading branches associated with traditional cherries. The Fuji cherry, Prunus incisa, has a more natural form and is the smallest of the natural cherry trees, at no more than 5m. It is also one of the first to flower. Prunus 'Little Pink Perfection' is even smaller, reaching just 3x3m. For a really tiny garden or a container, look out for Prunus 'Kojo-no-mai’, a very small dwarf shrub reaching no more than 2.5m, or bought in a standard lollipop shape.
For your own hanami experience, the widest diversity of traditional Japanese cherries can be seen at Batsford Arboretum in Gloucestershire, where they hold the national collection. For big impact, Alnwick Garden in Northumberland has the largest collection of Taihaku cherries in the world, with almost 330 trees, known for huge snow-like clusters of white flowers usually around the end of April to early May. The exact timing of the cherry blossom season varies with the weather each year. Follow garden social media and call ahead to avoid disappointment. Otherwise, you may know streets in your area where mature cherries will be in full swing; celebrate the season and take the detour to appreciate them.
Until next time, happy spring gardening!