"To see the cherries hung with snow," as one of the lesser poets once said, is a splendid occupation for mankind, and one which we could easily manage this winter.
Assuming the day will come when the cold relents, we may yet see the cherries hung with flowers, so today we may contemplate the flowering cherry.
The ones around the Tidal Basin are the most famous in America, and as a rule they bloom about April 4.They are the Tokyo cherry, Prunus yedoensis, commonly known as the Yoshino cherry.
They are good ones to start with, since as any gardener can plainly see, they are good-sized trees.
The trouble with all cherries, the gardener will reflect, is that they have poor foliage. Unlike the sophora, oak, locust, sycamore or ginkgo, cherry leaves look like nothing.
Another flaw of the cherry is that the bloom is fleeting, and often reminds me of certain peonies that are too beautiful to be true, and which (sure enough) last five days in beauty, then are gone.
The worst feature of the cherry is that its roots are near the surface, and often nothing will grow near them, nor under the dense shade they cast.
Having done my bit, realistically, to make sure we all understand the cherry has some drawbacks, I suppose I should say no tree is more delicate and lavish (rare combination) in flower.
At a recent lunch with a scholar of Japanese literature, I heard him say that like the Japanese themselves, he did not care much for the double-flowered sorts, but prefered the single kinds, with only five petals.
His own favorite is the winter cherry or plum blossom (the sort you see on blue and white porcelain jars) which is a wild apricot, Prunus mume. For some reason this plant has never become popular in America, probably because of the diffculty of getting plants.
Another related smallish tree is the double-flowering plum, which blooms with forsythias or a few days before. The one I know is called Prunus X blireana, and it has very double flowers on the bare stems, like somewhat damp pink aspirin pills. People are always surprised to see anything so festive at so early a season.
But back to the cherries proper; they agree in liking good soil and full sun. They flourish here, and the main warning I would offer is that they take a lot of space.
The late E. H. Wilson ("Chinese" Wilson, they called him, because he introduced hundreds of new plants from China) repeatedly used to speak of their size, as well as their beauty. The Yoshino grows to 50 feet and has a crown up to 75 feet across.
Another wild cherry, Sargent's cherry or P. serrulata sachalinensis, also makes a good-sized tree with branches forming a 30-foot-wide head. It is a pink with ruddy leaves.
There are several double cherries, with flowers like powder puffs, and while it is the fashion nowadays to call them vulgar, still they are irresistible in flower. As they wither, sometimes the blooms hang on a bit, in a marvelous pageant of corruption.
The somewhat fastigiate (though it fills out and is left columnar in age) pale pink double called 'Amanogawa' is popular; so is 'Fugenzo,' which is also known as 'James H. Veitch,' named for the celebrated English nurseryman. It is deeper pink than 'Amanogawa.'
A very double pink is 'Kiku-Shidare,' and the popular 'Kwanzan' (also known as 'sekiyama') is sometimes called rose red, though I never saw one that dark.
A lovely white is 'Shirofugen' which opens blush.
A semi-double white is 'Shirotae.'
These are all forms of P. serrulata.
One that is rarely seen is P. s. autumnalis, and I cannot think why this is an uncommon plant in gardens here. It is smaller than most, rather a shrub than a tree, and is pale pink. The flowers are semi-double, though they usually look single to me - possibly they just have an extra petal or two.
All cherries are best planted in early spring when the worst of the winter is past.They take cold perfectly, but the roots establish better when planted in spring - there are only a few trees that prefer spring planting, but among them are not only the cherries, but also the dogwoods and redbuds.
Since the autumn-flowering cherry (it simply divides its crop of flowers over fall, winter and spring, with the inevitable result that it does not bloom so heavily in the spring) is rather hard to find, I shall list sources for it as cited by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden: C. M. Hobbs & Sons, Inc., Bridgeport, Ind.; Weston Nurseries, Inc., Route 135, West Main Street, Hopkinton, Mass.; and Horton Nurseries, Inc., Painesville, Ohio.