Wednesday Weed – Winter Flowering Cherry Revisited

Winter-flowering Cherry on Huntingdon Road in East Finchley

Dear Readers, if there’s one plant that is guaranteed to be in flower on my birthday, it’s the winter-flowering cherry at the bottom of my road here in East Finchley. How welcome it is! Today the temperature is below freezing, and the road rang with the sound of windscreens being scraped, but here’s the tree, popping out its snowflake-flowers.

So, why does this tree flower from November to April, instead of in spring like any self-respecting plant? The answer is not ‘climate change’ (in this instance), or to enable the blossom to be pollinated by some particularly weather-proof bee. Nope, it flowers in the winter because we’ve bred it that way, presumably because we felt the long, dark January days needed some cheering up. On his ‘Street Trees’ blog, Paul Wood points out that in the very coldest weather the blossom actually gets frost bite and turns brown. Wood also mentions that winter-flowering cherries have a second burst of flowering in April, just as the leaves appear, and that these flowers are different from the earlier ones – the spring flowers have stalks, the winter ones don’t.

What a strange thing!
to be alive
beneath cherry blossoms.”
― Kobayashi Issa, Poems

Indeed. And now, let’s see what I had to say about this plant back in 2016.

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 (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/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.

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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 - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sakura_yu2.jpg#/media/File:Sakura_yu2.jpg

Pickled Cherry Blossom (Photo Two – credit below)

"和菓子PA100093" by Akiyoshi's Room - Akiyoshi's Room. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%E5%92%8C%E8%8F%93%E5%AD%90PA100093.jpg#/media/File:%E5%92%8C%E8%8F%93%E5%AD%90PA100093.jpg

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 - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sakura_yu.jpg#/media/File:Sakura_yu.jpg

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.

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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 (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/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 – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sakura_yu2.jpg#/media/File:Sakura_yu2.jpg

Photo Three:”和菓子PA100093″ by Akiyoshi’s Room – Akiyoshi’s Room. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%E5%92%8C%E8%8F%93%E5%AD%90PA100093.jpg#/media/File:%E5%92%8C%E8%8F%93%E5%AD%90PA100093.jpg

Photo Four: “Sakura yu” by Suguri F – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sakura_yu.jpg#/media/File:Sakura_yu.jpg

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer

 

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