Plant of the Month: April

LyndewodeAs a poet (rather than as an academic), A.E. Housman had the occasional lapse (who does not wince at the immortal lines, ‘The goal stands up, the keeper/Stands up to keep the goal’, in a stanza that Vaughan Williams refused to set and which not even George Butterworth’s supreme artistry can really redeem?), but he was bang on the money about the cherry tree.

Poem 2 from A Shropshire Lad (first published in 1896), for many people, simply IS England (again, Butterworth would be my choice for setting), in the same way that ‘The Lads in their Hundreds’ (Poem 23), though written twenty years before, sums up unforgettably the devastating waste of the First World War. Housman (1859–1936) was of course too old for the war; Butterworth (1885–1916) wasn’t, won the Military Cross, and died.

But the loveliest of trees, the cherry, has been wearing white (and pink) for Eastertide in spectacular fashion this year. This Prunus yedoensis is so stunning that it is not surprising to see it as the poster child for the Cambridge University Botanic Garden.

Prunus yedoensis, glowing even on an overcast day.

Prunus yedoensis, glowing even on an overcast day.

Prunus yedoensis, blossom.

Prunus yedoensis, blossom.

The Botanic Garden entrance sign.

The Botanic Garden entrance sign.

As so often, the taxonomy is complicated. The Prunus genus, in the subfamily Amygdaloideae of the family Rosaceae, includes cherries, plums, peaches, nectarines and apricots, and almonds, and of course the blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) – all trees with a fleshy fruit (or drupe) containing a single stone.

An apricot, Prunus armeniaca.

An apricot, Prunus armeniaca.

So far so good. Then there is a broad division into sweet and sour cherries. But why is Prunus padus known (in English) as the bird cherry, while Prunus avium, which actually means ‘birds’ cherry’ is either ‘wild cherry’, ‘sweet cherry’, ‘gean’, or ‘mazzard’?

Prunus avium, the wild 'sweet cherry'.

Prunus avium, the wild ‘sweet cherry’.

The sour cherry, Prunus cerasus, takes its name from the Greek word for ‘cherry’, κέρασος, which in turn is derived (allegedly) from the name of the present-day Turkish town of Girasun on the Black Sea, from which cherries were first imported to Europe. (Or vice versa, the town was named from the fruit…)

Prunus cerasus, the sour cherry.

Prunus cerasus, the sour cherry.

Like so many other good things, sour cherries derive from central Asia, though wild sweet cherries are indigenous to Europe, western Asia and north Africa. In terms of fruit, Turkey is today the largest grower of both sweet and sour cherries, though they are also an important part of the economy of Iran, Spain, Italy, and some American states. The hundreds of fruiting varieties commercially available today are derived from hybrids of either the sweet or the sour variety, and (very broadly) sweet cherries are eaten raw and sour ones cooked.* They can be difficult to grow, and are prey to all sorts of disasters: over-wet soil; the black cherry aphid; the cherry fruit fly, which lays its eggs in the fruit so that the larvae can eat their way out, (leaving a neat small hole to admit fungal infection); and various cankers, rots and viruses.

The decorative bark of Prunus maackii.

The decorative bark of Prunus maackii.

The first cultivated cherries were, it is claimed, first planted in Kent (formerly the centre of their cultivation in England) by one Richard Harrys, fruiterer to King Henry VIII. Henry had apparently tasted the fruit abroad (at the Field of the Cloth of Gold???) and ordered imported trees to be grown at Teynham.

Flowers of Prunus cyclamina.

Flowers of Prunus cyclamina.

But back to the flowering kind, which have been hugely popular in Europe ever since the first specimens were brought back from Japan, where Prunus serrulata (a species of Prunus cerasus) has been cultivated since the fifth century.

Viewing cherry blossoms by moonlight (1852), by Utagawa Kunisada.

Viewing cherry blossom by moonlight (1852), by Utagawa Kunisada.

The Japanese cherry is grown for its appearance rather than its fruit, and at the Hanami (flower-viewing) ceremony each spring, families picnic under the trees. (There is a national forecast of the south-to-north advance of blossoming time, and many years ago I saw an unforgettable time-lapse film of the blossom sweeping up the islands from south to north.)

Pink Prunus 'Shosar'.

Pink Prunus ‘Shosar’.

A National Collection of over 240 varieties is held at the arboretum of Keele University, while Batsford Arboretum in Gloucestershire holds the National Collection of Japanese flowering cherries, and of course parks, gardens and even streets are full of these popular and decorative trees.


My tiny Prunus ‘Kojo-no-mai’ (in rain).

The bad news is that the individual trees are not very long-lived – even if they survived the pests and blights noted above, thirty to forty years is good going – and so a constant programme of conservation and renewal is needed to make sure that these wonderful heralds of spring, whether wild or cultivated, continue to bring delight.


*P.S. For preserved cherries, get a large, airtight jar (Kilner or Rumtopf). Pick/buy enough ripe cherries to fill it, remove stalks and stones (the latter fiddly but vital). Put the prepared cherries in the jar, add some sugar to your taste, and pour in enough brandy to cover the fruit. Seal the jar, shake it occasionally until the sugar dissolves. Keep in a dark place for as long as self-control allows (e.g. until Christmas). When all the cherries are eaten, the remaining juice makes a very acceptable tipple.

This entry was posted in Botany, Cambridge, Gardens, Literature, Natural history and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.