I have never had the pleasure of visiting Japan but for many reasons it is on the top three of my dream destinations worldwide. From the minimalist, considered and elegant design which so inspired me as an architecture student to the ceremonies of tea drinking which teach us how to truly embrace the current moment, this fascinating country with such a wealth of traditions has long had a strong pull for me.
When I think of Spring planting, I always think of the city of Kyoto which was the former Imperial capital of Japan. Known for many reasons from its culinary diversity to its famous film scene for samurai movies, this city is most memorable for me as the place which, every Spring, turns into into a heavenly explosion of ruffly pink beauty. Seeing photos or films of the tree lined roads with masses of Cherry blossoms always takes my breath away and makes me want to book the next plane to Japan.
The Cherry Blossom tree, known as Sakura, is native to the Himalayas and Japan and if you want to see it in its native habitat the timing is tricky. The trees generally bloom in the last week of March and the first two weeks in April but this is far from guaranteed. Weather can play a role in making the petals fall early or the season can also be later so planning a trip will see you having to spend close to a month in the city to make sure you will get to see them in full glory. Having said that, there is always the official cherry blossom forecast from the weather bureau, known as sakura-zensen ( 桜前線 ) which predicts when the cherry will be in full flower.
With all their stunning splendour in Spring, cherry blossoms or Prunus trees when not in flower are generally quite subtle looking trees. Simple lance-shaped leaves grow from pretty, lined branches. The stems of most Prunus trees are chunky and very pretty in texture, making the bark a welcome addition for the Winter garden. The real beauty of course is the abundance of flowers in Spring but many people like to plant Cherry blossoms for Autumn interest too as most varieties display stunning autumn foliage in hues of orange, red, yellow and gold. So if you plant one of these beauties it’s good to know that it’s a fab tree for all seasons.
The deciduous tree I have chosen for this week’s column is a great way of bringing the effect of the sakura into even a small garden. The Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-no-mai’ is a small tree or shrub and grows only to about 2 metres in height and spread over 10 years. It has really lovely criss-crossing stems with an abundance of snow white blossoms all over it in Spring. It likes sun but can tolerate some shade too and to ensure compact growth, just pinch out the growth tips during the Summer months.
My favourite thing about the Cherry blossom is that in Japanese culture there is even a custom based solely on enjoying the beauty of flowers, particularly Cherry Blossoms. The custom of Hanami ( 花見 ) is a practice that is over a thousand years old and even now modern day Hanami sees thousands of people all over Japan flock to Parks where the trees are in bloom to celebrate the beauty and transience of the cherry flowers. So maybe now that my own sweet Prunus incisa is in full flower, I’ll take that as a perfect excuse for my own Hanami party- Happy Cherry Blossom season everyone!
Ancient History meets modern technology at Birr Castle and Gardens
If you feel like seeing garden full of stunning floral displays at this time of the year then take a trip to the wonderful Birr Castle in County Offaly. The gardens of this Castle and Science museum are incredibly beautiful and a testament to many generations of plantsmen, including the current Lord Rosse. At this time of the year the gardens are an explosion of Cherry Blossoms, such as the Prunus serrulata kanzan pictured here, as well as almost 30 varieties of Magnolias, one of which is called Magnolia Michael Rosse. This stunning collection is due to Michael, the 6th Earl’s passion for unusual plant specimens. Last year I had the honour of being led through the gardens by Lord Rosse himself, and there are endless areas of unique planting and unusual plants from all over the world. Our host showed us the flowers and foliage of trees such as the exceptionally rare Carrierea calycina
and we photographed the worlds oldest Box hedges in the formal gardens. Here native Chilean plants grow happily next to Tazmanian specimens and all look as though they belong here. Lord Rosse is an encyclopedia of plant knowledge with a passion that is infectious and interestingly Birr castle Demesne has even launched an interactive APP called Birr Castle Gardens and Audio Tour
which focuses exactly on this wealth of knowledge and experience. The APP is available on itunes and amazon for smartphones and the user is lead around the gardens by GPS and can learn many interesting facts on flowers, trees and personal stories from Lord Rosse himself. What a perfect example of bringing together ancient history and modern technology, a perfect place for every plant and science lover! For more go to: www.birrcastle.com
In many cultures the ceremony of drinking tea is a very important one. In Japan Buddhism was the major influence in the development of the art of tea drinking and with the earliest records of tea leading all the way to the 9th century, there is still a fascinating ceremonial preparation and presentation to this ancient practice.
Sakurayu is the Japanese tea infusion made from the Cherry blossom’s, and is a beautifully aesthetic tea which is often served at weddings as it signifies new beginnings. To make the tea the blossoms are picked off the tree and once the calyxes are removed the petals are pickled in plum vinegar and dried in salt to be stored. Using the flowers preserved in salt and vinegar, which are also known as sakura no shiozuke, makes
an incredibly visual tea. When the flowers are brewed in a tea with hot water, the petals slowly, elegantly unfurl. The flavour of the tea is surprising, and nothing like the sweetness of cherry you may expect. It is rather slightly salty with a hint of almond and apricot. If you feel like trying this you can buy the dried Cherry Blossoms in most Asian or Japanese stores or if you’re really adventurous you can even fins recipes for making the dried blossoms yourself. I found a deliciously sweet tea from the Palais des Thés s
hop on Wicklow Street in Dublin, called ‘Fleur de Geisha’ which is inspired by the Cherry blossom. For more go to www.palaisdesthes.com
Companions for Cherry Blossoms
I love a garden that is full of late Spring/early Summer blossoms and there is nothing more special that a garden that looks feathery and full at this time of the year> here are some companion plants that would work so well with the Cherry.
The fluffy white star shaped flowers of the magnolia stellata are a gorgeous light addition to the Cherry. They pick up on the papery texture of the cherry but yet have blossoms that are larger and elegant in shape. The compact tree is great for a small garden and open nice and early and are even slightly scented. They like a sheltered spot and whejn planting add plenty of peat to the mix.
Magnolia black tulip
This incredibly round shaped magnolia is a stunning addition to the garden and if you’re into a very feminine scheme this will really give lovely contrast to the white of the other trees. This tree likes acidic soil also and will grow to about 8 metres in height so not for the small garden. This tree is truly breathtaking when in bloom and again needs a bit of protection to do well.
It’s hard to choose something to plant under these showstoppers but I think you can never go wrong with the amazing Hellebore. N matter which variety you choose, when in bloom will echo the colours of the trees. The amazing evergreen structure of the leaves will give a deep green groundcover under the trees and they do well in the shade, so perfect under the cover of the canopies.