Tag Archives: Blackthorn



IMG_4991Fallen cherry blossom, Richmond Park

Cherry blossom in spring never fails to tug at our heartstrings. We are moved by the fragile mosaic of fallen petals on the grass and exhilarated by the sight of pale blooms against a brilliant spring sky:

yoshino close upYoshino Cherry against sky, Batsford Arboretum , Gloucestershire

Sitting stuck in traffic at a noisy junction at Vauxhall Cross I am distracted by two elegant white-flowered cherry trees which spread out their branches at the base of the movie-set-weary MI6 building and exert a self-contained, civilising influence over this grimy corner of the city. A little further south, the looming steak and curry-night posters outside the pub on Denmark Hill are masked for a few weeks by the intense blooming of a pair of cherry trees, one pink and one white.

I look up ‘cherry tree’ on Amazon – the titles are infused with nostalgia: the fresh delight of spring, the poignant passing of time. I smile at the cover of Josephine Elder’s 1954 ‘Cherry Tree Perch’. It is an impossible cover for a 2016 teenager, but there is a timeless element too – the beginning of the summer term, escaping from revision, dreaming about the time when school is over for the summer.

1954 cherr

And Enid Blyton does not miss a trick when she locates a set of young heroes in the idyllic and comforting world of  ‘Cherry Tree Farm’:



I confess we followed the same path when we asked our friend the portrait painter, Paco Garcia, to paint our three young sons. We were powerfully drawn to the idea of placing the boys under the ‘Great White’ cherry tree – Prunus ‘Tai-Haku’ – at my husband’s family farm in Suffolk.
DF 1

Prunus ‘Tai-Haku’ in the middle of the lawn, Suffolk

portraitPortrait of our three sons by Paco Garcia, spring 2003

The tree was planted forty years ago in the middle of the lawn nearest to the terrace. As well as its dazzling spring display, this tree has been a key player in family life for decades. It has provided shade at teatime when it is hot, it has been the place to put your new baby in his pram to gaze up at the gentle semaphore of the waving branches against the clouds, it was where the grandsons, when they were bigger, tumbled about on the petal-strewn grass with their grandfather’s new puppies. It was even – rather magnificently – incorporated in full flower into the 21st birthday marquee of my sister in law.

But this year, the cherry blossom in the UK has kept us waiting. Gardens with notable collections of cherry trees such as Batsford Arboretum and Kew Gardens invite visitors to telephone for updates. Each time I call, the recommended start date for a satisfactory blossom viewing is nudged a little later. The British approach is rather more gentle than the high-powered Cherry Blossom Watch in Washington DC – a city famed for its spectacular cherry blossom for over a century. In Washington, peak cherry blossom bloom is when the trees are exactly 70% out. Accurate forecasts and guidance are available for visitors and if you are still hopeful of catching some blossom, I’m afraid I have bad news. “Are DC’s Cherry Blossoms blooming?”, I want to know on April 27th, “No, they’re done for the year” declares the website. “The cherry blossoms reached peak bloom on March 25 2016”.


Back in London there is a moment at the end of March when entire London streets revel in their pale pink canopies of the particularly early flowering cherry plum, Prunus cerasifera ‘Pissardii’:IMG_4768IMG_4767cherry over front doorIMG_4793                                Prunus cerasifera ‘Pissardii’ – Holland Park, London

But there is a downside to this exuberant beginning – when the blossom floats away, the trees’  brownish-purple leaves give them a heavy, rather sulky look.

Down the hill in Ladbroke Grove, Chesterton Road is lined entirely with cherry trees, but even in the second week of April they are tightly in bud. I have to confess I am slightly hoping that the trees will be pink to match so many of the houses:

pink house then 2
chester then 2Cherry trees in Chesterton Road, tightly in bud

When I return on the gloomiest of spring days a couple of weeks’ later, the cherry trees are happily all in flower. They are not pink at all: instead they are lovely, clean, white-flowered Prunus avium ‘Plena’ – the more formal, double version of our native wild cherry. The street is softened by this haze of blossom as far as the eye can see.

pink house now chester now JPG chester now bestPrunus avium ‘Plena’ in flower, Chesterton Road, London

In a neighbouring street I catch sight of a little and large version of Prunus avium ‘Plena’ outside a pair of handsome Victorian houses. I love the balance of green and white against terracotta and green and white against white stucco, and it must be lovely to walk under a bower of pendulous blossom on your way to your front door. But there is a serious size issue to be considered when planting a dainty young cherry tree in your front garden. Too many trees – I am now rather obsessively observing them from my car and from the bus – were always destined to become too big for their site: they have become too heavy and have been chopped about in an attempt to squeeze them into the available space.

IMG_4963 prunus avium plena close up prunus avium plena elginPrunus avium ‘Plena’ – against terracotta and white painted stucco

On a more gorgeous day in a less lovely street in South London, indeed on the pavement alongside a railway, a row of fastigiate street cherries – I think they are the popular Prunus ‘Amanogawa’ – makes every passer by smile.

camberwell 1camber 3Railway-side cherry trees, Peckham

I love the added bonus of the trees’ elongated shadows on the tarmac:camber shadow                                              Cherry tree with elongated shadow

And looking up, the combination of palest pink flowers against a rich blue sky is exhilarating:camberwell 2camber 5camber 4Cherry blossom against blue sky, South London

As I wait for the right moment to head out of town I think about Japan, a country synonymous with cherry blossom.

The world of Japanese ‘hanami’ (flower viewing) is I am sure very beautiful, in parts. If you research it even for a moment you will be bombarded with extraordinary images of ‘sakura’ (cherry blossom) with Mount Fuji beyond, or of ‘night sakura’ or ‘yozakura’ when the cherry trees are hung with paper lanterns:








japanese-lanterns-in-park-full-of-sakura-trees_16Cherry blossom with Mount Fuji and ‘night sakura’ from the excellent blogpost ‘Insider Journeys’ by Rachel McCombie

Picnicking under the cherry blossom has unsurprisingly become big business, however, and websites such as Japan Monthly Web Magazine are happy to explain ‘How to Hanami’. The ‘must have’ shopping list includes ‘a typical plastic picnic sheet’, ‘more garbage bags than you think you will need’ and two types of ‘disposable body warmers’ – one is hand held and the other has adhesive so you can ‘tape it to your underwear to keep your back warm’.

Of course even McDonald’s has a special hanami menu – a teriyaki glazed pork patty with cherry blossom flavoured mayo in a pale pink bun and an outrageous looking Sakura Cherry Float to wash it down:


McDonald’s Hanami burger – image courtesy of the cheery blog EATAKUtumblr_inline_n2wyp1ubX91qb3qcf

McDonald’s Sakura Cherry Float – image courtesy of http://www.mcdonalds.co.jp

I know of course there are deeply beautiful, gentler ways to visit Japan at this time of year and I would head there like a shot. This seductive post from Gardenista, which shows how forager Louesa Roebuck pickles cherry blossom, brings the tempo back down to a subtle, delicate celebration of this fleeting moment in spring.

Gardenista-pickled-cherry-blossomsHow to pickle cherry blossoms – photograph from a series by Chloe Aftel on Gardenista

It is the third week of April and I can wait no longer for an expedition to see cherry trees growing in the countryside. My plan is to drive to Batsford Arboretum in Gloucestershire (which holds a national collection of cherries) via the Chilterns where I will look first for the wild cherry, Prunus avium.

I am inspired by Richard Mabey’s description of wild cherries in his ‘Flora Britannica Book of Spring Flowers’. He writes that ‘the wild cherry is arguably the most seasonally ornamental of our native woodland trees. The drifts of delicate white blossom are often out in early April, just before the leaves, while in Autumn its leaves turn a fiery mix of yellow and crimson. Even the bark – peeling to reveal dark, shiny-red patches – is extravagantly colourful for a British tree.’ In the Chilterns, when the trees ‘are at the edges of woods, as they often are (cherry needs light to regenerate), they can make the entire wood seem to be ringed with white at blossom-time.  A couple of weeks later, when the flowers have fallen, the woods are ringed again, on the ground. After the great storms of October 1987 there was another cherry delight the following spring: windblown trees blooming horizontally in the woods, like flowering hedges.’


Trying to research the best Chilterns woodland to aim for I am distracted by a wave of images of the American funk rock band, Wild Cherry. I fail hopelessly to get the band’s 1976 hit ‘Play that Funky Music’ out of my head as I make my way West on the M40.


But it is has been so cold that the only tree that is lighting up Ibstone Common when I arrive is still the delicate blackthorn or sloe, Prunus spinosa:

IMG_4849 prunus spinosa prunus spinosa instaPrunus spinosa, Ibstone Common

I find a single, skinny wild cherry, just in flower, under a canopy of taller trees at the edge of the path:
dat wild cherry 2 dat wild cherry                                      First wild cherry sighting, Ibstone Common

As I drive on I catch sight of further trees loosely radiant with flower. They have always found their way to the sunniest spots – not least the edges of motorways. At this rate the wild cherry will be with us well into May.

IMG_5008wild cherry view        Wild cherry – Prunus avium – in full flower, in the sunshine, at the edge of woodland

By the time I reach Batsford Arboretum the sun is warm enough to have lunch outside and it finally feels like spring. I set off hopefully around the 55 acre grounds. One of the first cherries I admire is this Prunus ‘Pink Shell – I like its rather startling top-heavy stance and its delicate bell-like flowers. Matthew Hall, Batsford’s Head Gardener, tells me that ‘Pink Shell’ is “not well enough known” and “never planted enough”. If you have the space to let it spread out in this exuberant way, you could source one from the nursery there.pink shellIMG_1763                                           Prunus ‘Pink Shell’, Batsford Arboretum

Also recommended by Matthew – and indeed on nearly every expert’s list of recommended cherry trees – is Prunus x yedoensis, the Yoshino Cherry. This is another cherry that grows in a lovely open way with profuse, palest pink, almond-scented blossom. In a large, meandering garden such as this, the Yoshino Cherry has the sort of fresh intensity that catches your eye from a distance and draws you towards it.

yoshino cherryyoshino cherry skywardsyoshino close upYoshino Cherry, Batsford Arboretum

A little further on I come across an elegant group of three young Prunus incisa ‘Fujima’. ‘Fujima’ is a wonderful cherry for smaller gardens – described by nurseries as a large shrub or small tree – with prolific palest pink blossom and handsome red and orange autumn colour once established. Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-No-Mai’ would be a great alternative for a small space. If you have a slightly larger space you could of course follow this example and plant three together.

fuji threesomefuji 2A group of three Prunus incisa ‘Fujima’, Batsford Arboretum

An even smaller tree is Prunus ‘The Bride’ with very pretty tight pink buds that open to white. The trees I see planted out and in the nursery at Batsford are very young indeed. I wonder if they will always look a little congested or if they will relax as they grow into a softer shape? I am undecided but the flowers are so charming it could be well worth a try.the bride close up

the bride closestBuds and flowers of Prunus ‘The Bride’

I make my way past a disconcertingly handsome mature Prunus cerasifera ‘Pissardii’. My general view of this purple leaved plum, of course, is that it can only disappoint once the flowers are over, but growing a tree well and giving a tree enough space can make all the difference, I tell myself.

IMG_4885                          Handsome, spreading Prunus cerasifera ‘Pissardii’, Batsford Arboretum

And then I come across a cherry tree which makes my heart sing. In fact there are a pair of  them – Prunus ‘Hillier’ – planted together. Each has been given room to grow old in a wonderful, slightly bent, gorgeously layered way. The towering cherries add a pale, fluttering lightness to the mature trees which surround them.


hillieri establishPrunus ‘Hillieri’, Batsford Arboretum

They perfectly frame the view beyond and I love the way the hanging branches act as the loveliest of veils.

IMG_4877A pair of Prunus ‘Hillier’ framing the view beyond


hilleri tangle close

hillier veil Hanging branches of Prunus ‘Hillieri’, Batsford Arboretum

Frustratingly I cannot find a current supplier for Prunus ‘Hillieri’. Matthew Hall at Batsford kindly suggests Prunus ‘Jaqueline’ as his first choice for a possible alternative.  ‘Jaqueline’ is a relatively new introduction with deeper pink single flowers. A probable hybrid of Prunus sargentii, it has the bonus of dramatic pink-red autumn colour.

I look again at the two fine ‘Hillieri’ cherries trying to work out what else it is about the planting that is so satisfying. My eye is drawn to the handsome,  katsura tree – Cercidiphylum japonicum – standing next to themThis has long been one of my favourite trees with its fine rows of suspended, light-catching leaves which smell deliciously of of burnt caramel in the autumn. It is clearly the absolutely perfect pairing with a shell pink flowered cherry and one I will aim to repeat.  IMG_1752                               The elegant dirty gold leaves of Cercidiphyllum japonicum

cercidiphyllum and hillier IMG_4868IMG_4871                                      Cercidiphyllum japonicum and Prunus ‘Hillieri’















It has been a dazzling April – except for today when I set off for a walk in my navy blue fur coat and return ridiculously soaked and bedraggled like a cartoon dog who has been up to no good.

Every morning I have been watching the sun creep over the back fence of our garden in South London and feeling as the day goes on that I can see the plants growing before my very eyes.

We have just visited West Wales for three days and have enjoyed three perfect walks. The first walk was a whole day and a picnic along part of the Pembrokeshire coastal path:

IMG_2853Much of the way is lined with cow parsley – I love this moment when the cow parsley is still tight and yellow-green and you get that first-snatched taste of the lacy fullness to come.

IMG_2831Turn a corner as the sun comes out and you could think you are suddenly in the Aegean:

establish island

Dense cushions of thrift (Armeria maritima)  soften the path:


The thrift’s bobbing pink heads cling astoundingly to the cliff edges:


If you look closely amongst the floppy fringe of grasses in the plainest most exposed parts of the path, there are soft mauve sweet violets everywhere:

violet and pathThe expression ‘shrinking violet’ was first used to describe the violet’s modesty by Victorian essayist Leigh Hunt. It was quickly taken up as an expression to describe a quiet, even introverted personality.

On this walk I am fascinated at the way the flowers take such pains to lurk behind other foliage – and I cannot get the image of Dash’s gawky teenage sister hiding shyly behind a curtain of hair in the brilliant INCREDIBLES movie out of my head. Only when I get home and look her up am I reminded that the character is course perfectly named, Violet!


Violet from the wonderful Pixar Movie, The Incredibles, hiding behind her hair


Sweet violets hiding behind lush Welsh grass

Other wild flowers on our route are the lovely sea campion (Silene uniflora) – bright white flowers held by a delicate, smokey pink calyx:

sea campion
Neat mounds of common scurvy grass (Cochlearia officinalis):

white flower tbc– its leaves full of Vitamin C, traditionally much valued by sailors as a protection against scurvy.

And there is the constant presence of blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) – its spikey white-splashed framework looking entirely gorgeous against the surprisingly rich blue of the water below:


The pale grey frills of lichen are breathtaking close-up:

IMG_2876By the time I see this blocky, white-washed, cliffside farmhouse I am ready to move in and create a seaside garden of my own, planting it very simply but generously with the sort of plants that have we have just walked past.


At the end of our walk stands the 1930’s chapel of St Non – a notice tells us that church services are no longer held here as when the rain beats against the chapel it can penetrate the two and a half feet walls in less than thirty minutes.

IMG_2886Inside there is the stained glass window of St Non by a follower of William Morris.  The clear royal blue and turquoise are surprisingly vibrant in the suddenly chilly low light at the end of the day:


The next day I make sure to get a reassuring fix of timeless Welsh moss in a favourite stretch of forest near Brechfa in Carmarthenshire

Here the moss is everywhere – on the bare branches of deciduous trees:

moss branches

Clothing the base of trunks and catching fragments of available light:moss trunk Forming softly carpeting ripples:moss carpet

that make you want to stop and look closer:moss carpet closerand closer still.moss carpet closest

This is real Wales to me. We amble through the forest before lunch on Sunday and I feel rooted and cushioned by our visit.

On the way back to London, still in Carmarthenshire, we visit the restored medieval gardens of Aberglasney.  The perfection of the immaculately gardened grounds is occasionally overwhelming but there are some very beautiful elements and as always ideas to try to take away.

In the woodland garden we walk amongst competition quality examples of shade loving planting. There are still some perfect examples of the beautiful pink edged Helleborus orientalis ‘Harrington Double White Speckled’:


and as the hellebores begin to fade a sea of pretty leaved Aquilegia foliage is rising up to take over – a perfect and practical example of successional planting:

IMG_2935 (1)

Paths are generously edged with my favourite dicentra – the glaucous leaved woodland dicentra, Dicentra formosa – lower growing and gentler in every way than its sometimes brash cousins:IMG_2943 IMG_2942Elsewhere the classic brilliant blue flowered Omphaloides cappadocica ‘Cherry Ingram’ is used again in large simple swathes:IMG_2938 IMG_2933And there are pools of the lovely pale blue grape hyacinth, Muscari Valerie Finnis – I have coveted this for a while now – time to put it definitively on my bulb order for September 2014IMG_2954 (1)I also made a luscious new discovery- Jeffersonia diphylla:


This North American woodland plant has wonderful rounded bow-ties of bright green leaves and will bear bowl shaped anemone like white flowers later in the month – available to buy in the UK from Long Acre Plants, a great nursery which specializes in plants for shade.

And then there are the beautiful bones of the garden, old stone walls which are wonderfully exploited in different ways throughout.

Here the handsome crenellated wall provides a strong structural shape to balance the mature trees beyond and acts as a backdrop for the brightly coloured bedding in front.


In some parts of the garden the walls are left plain – moments of plant-free calm


Elsewhere they offer wonderfully framed openings onto new areas of the garden:


Where the walls are clothed in plants the approach is simple and uncluttered. There is an entire wall of ivy leaved toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis) – a delicate trailing plant with tiny ivy-like leaves and lilac flowers ‘like tiny snapdragons’ ( turn to Chiltern Seeds if you would like to recreate the look) all summer.  This plant was introduced to the UK from Europe in the Seventeenth Century and is perfect for growing in crevices and on walls to create a soft atmosphere in a new wall.


There are further crenellated walls elegantly laced with stems of Virginia creeper –  again I am moved by this moment in the year when you can almost see the new leaves growing, trying to cover the wall completely.


And in the walled kitchen garden there is a magnificent stretch of perfect ‘Belgian Fence’ trained apples and pears:


It’s fascinating to see how far behind the trained apples are on the left of the steps:IMG_2981compared to the trained pears:very close pear

There are also two handsome crab apple tunnels which I remember visiting years ago in late summer when they were heavy with tiny red fruit:

malus tunnel

The crab apple used here is the compact and particularly broad variety, Malus sargentii, which has a profusion of long-lasting neat cherry-like red fruit from August onwards. The neat pink buds will open to white and the tunnel should be in full flower by the end of April/beginning of May.

close up sargentiiMany parts of the garden are linked by immaculately cobbled and criss-cross patterned stone paths:

IMG_2966IMG_2965 (1)And through a final archway is a storybook perfect fritillary meadow bathed in sunshine:


And so back to South London with a jolt but amazingly the blue skies continue.  When we stop for lunch even the wall in the pub car park is bursting into life:


Back in our kitchen I look up at the glorious fig tree outside the back door.  There is the same buzz of excitement I felt witnessing the unfurling cow parsley in Pembrokeshire and the still separated leaves of the virginia creeper at Aberglasney –  again I am witnessing a plant which is growing towards the summer before my very eyes:



Sea campion, moss and a Ninfarium – obviously – in the land of St Non