Nothing says spring quite like the froth of cherry blossoms silhouetted against a late-winter sky. The delicate blooms usually blow to the ground within weeks, but their appearance, and the lacy blanket of confetti they leave behind, evokes new beginnings as few other trees can.
Ornamental cherry trees (Prunus spp.) may be at their showiest in spring, but they bring form, structure and colour to the garden at other times of the year, too.
Graceful weeping cultivars provide accent points near small ponds or in Japanese gardens. Upright, columnar cherries fit nicely into compact city lots. Large spreading types provide shade in parks and bigger gardens.
Cherry tree blossoms and leaves offer excellent variety. Their five-petalled blooms can be pink or white, single or double, fragrant or not. Some flowers open in one shade and change as they mature; the colour of the small, pointed leaves can also transform, initially unfurling in bronze, then turning green as the summer progresses. In fall, the tree erupts into yellow-orange foliage; in winter, its weeping or upright form adds structure to a denuded garden, giving the cherry excellent four-season interest. It’s easy to see why—though brief its bloom time may be—our love affair with this fabled tree is a lasting one.
Beloved for their beauty, ornamental cherries were sent as gifts of friendship by Japan to cities in North America starting as early as 1912, when 3,000 were given to Washington, D.C. In the early 1940s, 700 saplings were given to Vancouver, and were later planted in the city’s Queen Elizabeth Park. During the 1950s, Vancouver parks officials, who thought the cherry was the perfect specimen to replace forest trees that were crowding city boulevards, purchased more and began grafting their own. Today, almost 20,000 cherry trees grace Vancouver’s streets, and there are many more beautifying public and private gardens across Canada.
Cherry blossoms are symbols of simplicity, transience and ephemeral beauty. In medieval Japan, they symbolized the samurai. These men, who were prepared to sacrifice themselves for their masters, led lives like that of the cherry blossom—beautiful but brief.
The annual viewing of the cherry blooms, or hanami, has an almost religious fervour in Japan; for centuries, blossom-viewing picnics have been a rite of spring. Millions of people follow the northward progression of the blooms, and train stations post signs indicating the best spots for viewing. Cherry blossom viewing is now popular in North America as well.