Flowering Japanese cherry blossom in Derbyshire

PUBLISHED: 00:00 26 April 2018

Cherry Blossom by Gillian Baker

Cherry Blossom by Gillian Baker


Robert Vernon (snr) of The Bluebell Arboretum and Nursery at Smisby writes about the Prunus x ‘Kanzan’ flourishing in Smisby churchyard and, no doubt, in many other sites around Derbyshire

It’s all too easy to take for granted Japanese flowering cherries which, whatever the weather, reliably fill many English gardens with beautiful blooms each spring. However, cast your mind back 150 years or so when the first of hundreds of cherry cultivars started to arrive from Japan, which hitherto had been virtually closed to the west.

The best that British gardeners could then have looked forwards to were the cool white flowers of blackthorn in April, occasional wild cherry trees with their single flowers or our familiar May blossom.

Try to imagine the first time people were lucky enough to see one of the first flowering Japanese cherries, perhaps planted locally in Derby Arboretum, the first public arboretum in England, opened in 1840.

Since the 9th century, Japanese nurserymen had been actively breeding and hybridising many beautiful selections and the first sight of these flowering aristocrats must have been sensational!

The cherries above the beautifully restored wall of Smisby church are a popular variety called Prunus x ‘Kanzan’. It has a distinctive vase-shaped habit and a profusion of double pink flowers in early spring, each flower containing between 23–28 violet pink petals.

‘Kanzan’ is a poetic word which literally means ‘bordering mountain’; maybe something is lost in translation here! There are two bordering mountains, formerly of strategic importance, at Ichi-no-seki, 550 miles north east of Kyoto, an area known as Kanzan, from where this cultivar may have derived its name.

The ephemeral transience of the flowers is much appreciated by young and old in Japan; towards the end of March and into April tens of millions of Japanese, young and old, enjoy their favourite festival, Hanami. Each day the eagerly awaited weather forecast even predicts where cherry trees will be flowering at their peak, from Kyushu in the south, moving up into Honshu and finally finishing in northern Hokkaido.

Crowds gather under cherry blossom trees, which have been planted by the tens of thousands where they enjoy poetry, fine food and wine. In parks and public spaces many of the trees are illuminated at night and are enjoyed in a way similar to the ‘son et lumière’ festivals familiar today in many French chateaux.

Smisby residents might enjoy their own mini Hanami by the churchyard or in Bluebell Arboretum, where there are young specimens of over 45 beautiful cherry cultivars; it may surprise readers to learn that nearby Keele University is home to Britain’s national collection of over 240 different varieties of cherry trees (visit www.keele.ac.uk/cherries/aboutthecollection for details).

Better still, save up for the trip of a lifetime and visit Kyoto at Hanami time; you won’t be disappointed! u

Bluebell Arboretum & Nursery, Annwell Lane, Smisby, Ashby de la Zouch, LE65 2TA

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