In 1997 I witnessed my first and never to be forgotten hanami. I was in Japan filming a series for Channel 4 and we arrived there at cherry blossom season to witness this important cultural connection to the natural world. The blossom forecast or ‘cherry blossom front’ announced by the weather bureau charted the daily progress as the opening blossom moved up the archipelago, so that parties could be planned in celebration.
We arrived in Kyoto with perfect timing, just as the first buds were beginning to open. The streets in the old town were lined with the sakura trees and the beautifully manicured limbs reached from behind garden walls and dipped down to hover above the pavements. As the week went on and the buds opened, a skim of petals began to pool on the dark water of the tree-lined canals and, with the mounting crescendo of bloom, came the parties of people that gathered under the branches. During the day the sakura made pale, luminous cloudscapes of blossom in the parks. By evening, for the night viewing of yozakura, they were illuminated with lanterns. Picnic blankets, almost touching like towels on a crowded beach, shadowed the canopies of the trees and the Japanese partied with sake and merriment to welcome the spring.
My most memorable blossom viewing was a trip we made to a cherry tree nursery. We had been instructed to visit in the afternoon to look at the trees in the fields and, with perfect timing, at dusk we were escorted to their king tree. This was their most magnificent Yoshino cherry, pruned over decades to form a wonderful canopy of limbs which were illuminated from below by a number of flaming braziers. The flickering light caught the first flower and, as darkness descended beyond the branches, we were held transfixed in a moment of absolute perfection. Sugary pink bud, a scattering of just opened flower and all the promise of what was yet to come in the season’s change. A metaphor for life that everyone there understood. Intense, breath-taking beauty, yet fleeting and ephemeral.
The Yoshino cherry (Prunus x yedoensis) is perhaps my favourite of all cherries and I have made room for one here, so that we too can celebrate the arrival of spring. Last weekend was our equivalent moment, with bud and expectation of flower. Today as I write, it is in full blossom and droning with honeybees. Though it is undoubtedly ornamental, with a live, bright pink to the bud, this rapidly pales as the flowers open. They are single, but massed on elegant growth, which reaches to form a widely-domed tree. I have planted a multi-stemmed tree here by the trough in front of the house so that, for the two weeks that it is in season, it is free to take centre stage. In time its limbs will reach out so that it can be doubly appreciated in the water. First in reflection and then with the petals scattered on the surface.
Although as a general rule I prefer to plant small, I invested in an air-pot grown specimen from Deepdale Trees for this key position. The airpot system encourages a dense and fibrous root system and, as a consequence, results in quick establishment. The Yoshino cherry is well-known for its wind tolerance and so far has done well here with our lack of shelter. Where the habit of some cherries can be stiff, the movement in the limbs and its arching growth make this a supremely elegant tree. It has a second season too with tiny cherries that the birds strip fast when they are ready and, in a good autumn, bright foliage of orange, russet and red.
It is important to dedicate some time to be with the tree when it has this moment. Stopping to look up into the energy caught in the blossom, take in the gentle perfume and the industry of the bees making the most of this early larder, time slows and the abundance and energy of spring are brought sharply into focus.