Whenever it appears, early or late, blossom heralds the arrival of spring. Whether warm days or snow are to follow, one warm day sees buds burst into delicate petals and a fondant haze descends upon the bare branches of winter. Early flowering trees and shrubs display their fragile flowers before leaves unfurl; a lovely sight without the heavy gown of green foliage to subdue the display.
As the blackthorn, Prunus spinosa erupts in the hedgerows in clouds of tiny white spring flowers so Prunus cerasifera, the myrobalan plum, bursts into blooms in our gardens and verges.
The purple leaved Prunus cerasifera ‘Nigra’ is the most popular variety with a rounded head of dark twigs carrying tiny pale pink flowers in profusion. After a few days the display is enhanced by the young copper-purple leaves. These continue to develop to rich wine purple after the spring flowers have faded. Prunus cerasifera ‘Nigra’ is an excellent tree for the smaller garden where it provides strong, definite structure and a bold contrast to the green foliage of the garden. Prunus cerasifera ‘Nigra’ grows on any soil and will withstand quite exposed conditions, even in coastal gardens. Its dense twiggy head makes it an excellent choice for screening and to attract nesting birds.
Prunus cerasifera ‘Pissardii’ is similar but with pink buds opening to white flowers and deep wine-purple foliage. Although rarely used as such it makes an excellent hedging plant particularly on clay soils.
Of all the delicate early blossom trees Prunus x yedoensis, Yoshino cherry is perhaps the most beautiful. It grows to form a small tree with a broad head of arching branches. Even young specimens have a sense of maturity and old trees with gnarled wood are creatures of wonder when in flower.
In March or early April the branches are smothered in purple-pink buds that open into blush-white, almond-scented flowers. It often planted as a specimen tree in a lawn but is at its best underplanted with blue pulmonarias and vincas and early bulbs such as the sapphire and white Chionodoxa luciliae.
When planted in lawns mature cherries can be a problem because of their surface roots which disrupt the turf making mowing and maintenance difficult. Creating a bed around the tree reduces the imact of the roots on the lawn.
The popular ornamental pear, Pyrus x calleryana ‘Chanticleer’ is quite different in character. It forms a neat conical head of ascending branches on a stout, upright trunk. Although not grown for its early blossom tight posies of creamy- white flowers with dark stamens crowd the branches in early spring, becoming whiter as they mature. Once the flowers are fully open apple green leaves start to unfurl that become glossy emerald green after the flowers fade. This is one of the most successful trees for general planting. It grows well on most soils and its compact shape makes it perfect for the smaller garden. The foliage looks good throughout the season, turning gold, rust and purple before it falls in mid winter.
Even the smallest garden or courtyard can have the benefit of beautiful spring blossom with Prunus incisa ‘Kojo no Mai’. This lovely shrub has an elegant habit of layered branches and zig-zag twigs. Pink buds open to white flowers that hang in dainty bunches all along the branches in early spring. It is another easy-to-grow, versatile plant that has the added bonus of neat, small serrated leaves that turn rich shades of flame in autumn. It is ideal as a specimen in a rock garden, alongside a terrace or better still in a pot. Grown in a container it has a bonsai-like appearance and makes a dramatic and beautiful feature on the patio, or near the house. Plant it in a large earthenware pot in loam-based compost and it will need little care apart from regular watering and an annual application of controlled release fertiliser.
The Chinese bush cherry, Prunus glandulosa was a popular shrub for spring flowers in Victorian times but is rarely grown today. It has upright branches with small pink or white flowers in April. Prunus glandulosa ‘Sinensis’ is sometimes available. It has large double pink flowers, with darker outer petals all along the branches as the apple green leaves are emerging. This prunus was often used for forcing for cut flowers and stems of the blossom occasionally appear in florists today. In the garden it has the rather annoying habit of dying back from the tips of the branches. Any dead wood should be cut back when the plants are in leaf.
Any pruning of cherries should be done during the summer rather than the winter. Cutting cherries when dormant can result in influx of disease so, if necessary, they are best pruned when in full leaf. Nearly all cherries suffer from holes in the leaves near the branch tips when the trees are in full leaf. This is caused by a virus, it is known as “shot hole”. Nothing can be done about it so there is no point spraying with a chemical or worrying about it. The cherries with smaller leaves are less prone to the disease than the larger-leaved later flowering cherries.
Tip: Now is a good time to plant a container grown tree in your garden. Make sure you prepare the ground well, add compost and slow release fertiliser. Most importantly make sure you stake and tie your new tree securely and check that tie regularly to ensure that it’s not damaging the bark.
If you would like to learn more about trees why not join me on my online gardening course Choosing, using and planting trees? Learn how trees can transform any garden, however large or small.