From April into May the garden changes daily. It can be hard to predict what it will look like in a weeks time while everything is growing at such an incredible rate. The weather is still very changeable and, even in a garden you’ve known for years, the slight seasonal variations can cause things to flower at slightly different times each year, creating a new picture, full of unique plant combinations.
Few plants can do the horticultural fireworks better than a flowering tree. Most of the blossom we see in UK gardens will be from cherry, pear or apple trees, although hawthorn and rowan also give an impressive display. Members of the cherry family such as prunus cerasifera ‘Nigra’ (the cherry plum) can often be the first to bloom and some will be flowering by early March, though most ornamental varieties like prunus serrulata (the Japanese cherry or Sakura) will flower during April and May. Cherry blossom has gained a mythical status in Japan. At this time of year many people picnic out under the bloom covered branches of the revered trees, laden with flowers in a tradition known as hanami. The intensity, and beauty of the blossom is seen as a metaphor for life itself, so to spend some time admiring the display, and considering its temporary nature, is an opportunity to reflect on our own impermanence. In the UK we have taken ornamental cherries to our hearts, and they commonly line our streets, filling the air with a blizzard of their delicate petals in the slightest gust of wind.
Apples and pears are probably even more commonly seen in Britain and few back gardens in the UK will be without one. In Hampstead Garden Suburb in North London, the houses were built to try and demonstrate an example of ideal housing for the working classes and one of the planning conditions specified was that every garden should have at least two fruit trees. At this time of the year the area is awash with blossom. A recent surveys of the apple trees, in 2009, identified forty five varieties planted. The majority were common varieties such as ‘James Greive’ or ‘Bramley Seedling’ but many were older, and less common trees such as ‘Peasgood’s Nonsuch’ or ‘Gascoyne Scarlet’. Apples are deeply embedded into our culture and it is thought that during the 19th century there may have been 6000 unique cultivars of malus domestica being grown in the UK. It is incredible to consider that all of these are derived from a single wild ancestor, probably malus pumila from Asia (not malus sylvestris – the crab apple, as is often thought,) which has, over many millennia, been selected, bred and improved alongside the development of civilisation. It is no wonder then that this humble fruit became one of the central characters in the story of the garden of Eden.
For myself, when I see the apple blossom it always conjures up memories of my wedding anniversary. My wife and I got married on the 2nd of May, so we were able to use apple blossom for our confetti and whenever I see an apple in bloom I am taken back to my happy memories and the feelings from the day. Perhaps we should initiate our own version of the hanami tradition, walking amongst our abundant apple orchards and picnicking underneath their boughs heaving with blossom to hopefully ensure a prosperous harvest and long life for both ourselves and the trees.