Wednesday Weed – Winter Flowering Cherry

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Winter Flowering Cherry (Prunus subhirtella)

Winter Flowering Cherry (Prunus subhirtella)

Dear Readers, this plant may seem an odd choice for a Wednesday Weed. For one thing, it is not a ‘weed’ even by my very wide definition and, although it probably originated in Japan, it is unknown in the wild. But on a dark January day, with slushy snow still on the ground and with the bitter wind infiltrating every gap between clothing and skin, it lit up St Pancras and Islington Cemetery like a sprinkle of starlight.

IMG_5148The people of Japan have an enduring relationship with cherry blossom – the fairy Ko-no-hana-sakuya-hime, ‘the maiden who causes the trees to bloom’, is said to waken the dormant trees into blossom by softly breathing on them. These were the trees of Emperors, and much time and effort was spent in selecting the best specimens (cherry trees are capable of great variation) and developing new kinds – the Japanese have had double-flowered cherry trees for over a thousand years. Furthermore, the Japanese knew about the art of grafting one tree onto another since early times, and so could propagate a new and exciting variety by persuading a cutting to grow from the stem of a more mundane tree. This is one reason why many people believe that the Winter Flowering Cherry is a hybrid (probably between the Fuji Cherry (Prunus incisa) and the Weeping Tree (Prunus spachiana) ). In Japan, the trees are doted upon, and some Winter Flowering Cherries can reach a very impressive stature.

By Sakaori (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

A pink Winter Flowering Cherry at the front of the Juinji Temple in Koshu, Japan.(Photo One – Credit below)

Cherry blossom was so much tied up with Japanese culture that the trees were sometimes planted in order to  claim occupied territory as Japanese space. The ephemeral nature of the blossoms symbolises mortality in Buddhist teachings, and during the Second World War the Japanese population were encouraged to regard the flowers as the reincarnations of kamikaze fighters – indeed, one kamikaze sub-unit was named ‘the Wild Cherry Blossoms’. That these delicate blossoms could be used for such a militaristic purpose may seem strange to us now, but humans have always co-opted the symbolism of plants and animals and used it to shore up their own ideas.


Although the fruit of ornamental varieties of cherry is usually inedible, the Japanese pickle the blossoms in plum vinegar. The pickle is used with wagashi (a traditional Japanese sweet) and with anpan, which is a kind of Japanese doughnut.

"Sakura yu2" by Suguri F - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Commons -

Pickled Cherry Blossom (Photo Two – credit below)

"和菓子PA100093" by Akiyoshi's Room - Akiyoshi's Room. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -

A plate of Wagashi (Photo Three – credit below)

Salt-pickled cherry blossoms in hot water produce a kind of tea called sakurayu, which is drunk at festive events.

"Sakura yu" by Suguri F - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -

Sakurayu – cherry blossom tea (Photo Four – credit below)

The Latin species name ‘subhirtella’ means ‘slightly hairy’, apparently a reference to the young wood. I shall have to look more closely later in the year to see if the plant has a tendency to shagginess.


Although it hasn’t been cold here in London, it has felt like a very long winter, and of course we are not out of the dark yet. But it is rather cheering to see something flowering when it should, rather than months early, and if any bee were foolish enough to venture out when it gets a little warmer at least there will be something for it to feed on. I like to think that maybe the collective spirits of all the people buried in the cemetery derive some pleasure from the flowers as well. At the very least, this early cherry blossom is something beautiful for the visitors to the cemetery to gaze upon when their mood is at its lowest. Let us never underestimate the solace that nature can provide.

Photo Credits

Photo One: By Sakaori (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two: “Sakura yu2” by Suguri F – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Commons –

Photo Three:”和菓子PA100093″ by Akiyoshi’s Room – Akiyoshi’s Room. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

Photo Four: “Sakura yu” by Suguri F – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer


8 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Winter Flowering Cherry

  1. Maria F.

    Thank you for a nice post. Americans call ‘weeds’ many of the plants which have simply “naturalized”. Some people call “weeds” invasives”. However, this beautiful tree stands as evidence that beauty and health belongs to the planet.

  2. Beach-Combing Magpie

    Couldn’t agree more with your remark on how we should “not underestimate the solace that Nature can provide”. Many of these ‘weeds’ are often the only living things to bring life and a certain beauty to the more hostile, ugly sites around us… Poppies in war trenches, Rosebay Willow Herb in derelict housing zones, Buddleia in cracked building facades and drains. Yesterday, sunlight on the frost on the Old Man’s Beard sprawling over dilapidated fencing was a real marvel on the otherwise gloomy old trudge to the supermarket.

    1. Bug Woman

      So true, Beach-combing Magpie. I remember commuting into Liverpool Street Station, and seeing the Buddleia clinging to the sooty walls like a latter-day Hanging Garden of Babylon.

  3. Classof65

    Beautiful cherry trees! Am also glad your mother is recuperating well…
    Someone “dumped” an orange tom cat on our property, so I guess my husband and I are back in the “rescue” business again. We had placed all seven of our rescued cats last July and had decided that we would retire from rescue, at least for a while, but we could not ignore the pitiful cries of this cat in our back garden. We have an appointment with the vet to get the cat inoculated and treated for ear mites and internal parasites and neutered as well — we’re on a fixed income (Social Security) so the $200 that will cost us is a sizeable dent in our savings, but necessary, we believe. Luckily Bennie (that’s what we’re calling him) was not on his own for very long so a few good meals perked him right up and he had only a few scratches and a sore foot, so he wasn’t in any serious fights with raccoons, opossums, dogs or other cats. He’s quite large, probably weighs about 20 pounds, sorry I don’t know how many kilos that is! It has been lonely without any cats around, so we’re both happy to pet him and let him know we care for him…

    1. Bug Woman

      Hi Classof65, how lovely to have a ginger tom in your life – 20 pounds is a hefty chap! And bless you for taking him in – I have a feeling that once you’re a cat rescuer, you’re stuck for life 🙂

  4. Pingback: Deep in Their Roots All Flowers Keep the Light (Theodore Roethke) | Bug Woman – Adventures in London

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