It’s an annual miracle, the transformation of bare brown branches into blossom-wreathed visions of loveliness. When winter gives way to spring, we welcome the bulbs that push their way through the leaf litter and the early flowers that carpet the ground, but nothing lifts the heart quite like the sight of a tree in full bloom. It’s a seasonal event that never fails to delight and its ephemeral nature makes it doubly precious.
It’s not just within orchards that blossom reigns supreme; like a benevolent invading force, it sweeps across the land, moving up from the south and west, garlanding gardens, lining roadsides, frothing its way through hedgerows and generally making us feel glad to be alive. Some of these trees have been carefully chosen and lovingly tended as spring highlights in gardens, some are the result of a carelessly thrown apple core or cherry stone, while others are native in their natural habitat, but all choose to flower in a spectacular tree-enveloping display.
Underlying all this beauty is the tree’s botanical response to the lengthening days and warmer temperatures, stimulating it to emerge from its winter dormancy. Fruit trees, in particular, need to be quick off the mark to ensure that there is time for the fruit to grow to maturity in one season. But early development brings with it the risk that late frosts may damage the flowers – as happened last year – resulting in a poor harvest. Fortunately, affected trees should carry a bumper crop this year (unless there are similar late frosts) because they had a season off from setting and growing fruit – and loved the wet summer.
Of course, not all blossom is borne on fruit trees – crab apples, flowering cherries, amelanchier and hawthorn are all grown primarily for their ornamental value, although some of them do bear fruit. But while they may not produce a useable crop, they’re still valuable in the garden as a source of pollen for bees, cross-pollinators for other fruit in the same family, and food for the birds.
Our showiest of all blossom trees – the magnolia – clearly considers itself above any requirement to be useful and simply produces magnificent blooms.
Unless you have space to spare, you need to make your choice carefully. These trees have a brief moment of glory and, if their fruit and autumn foliage is unremarkable, you are committing yourself to 50 weeks of comparative plainness for a fortnight’s fabulousness. Look for a variety that has several virtues beyond beautiful blossom – an elegant outline in winter, interesting bark, attractive fruit, nicely shaped leaves and intense autumn colour. You may not get all of these qualities in a single tree, but if you can tick as many boxes as possible, it will make a year-round contribution to the garden.
Take your time selecting a tree because you may well be living with it for many years to come and, unless it is the right shape and the blossom is the perfect shade, you may regret a rushed decision. If your local garden centre has only a limited range, visit a specialist tree nursery in your area or search for one online. Size is a major consideration: flowering cherries range from the delicate beauty of Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-no-mai’ (left), which can be grown in a pot, to the magnificent ‘Taihaku’, also known as the Great White Cherry, which can attain a height and spread of 12 metres. Similarly, Malus pumila ‘Cowichan’ is semi-weeping and grows to no more than four metres, while Malus floribunda is a crab apple that can reach 12 metres in maturity.
In gardens with no room for a tree, there are spring flowering shrubs that will provide a similar effect. Viburnum carlesii ‘Diana’ (left) has dense heads of richly fragrant white flowers tinged with pink, while Choisya x dewitteana ‘Aztec Pearl’ will be smothered in citrus scented blooms in sun or partial shade. Although not ‘blossom’ in the conventional sense, the spring-flowering clematis puts on a show to rival any tree. They are fast growing and can be planted to disguise an ugly building, to soften a fence or positioned to scramble into a deciduous tree to give it an extra season of interest.
Location is very important. All blossom trees perform best planted out of the prevailing wind: their flowering is such a brief spectacle that it would be a shame for all the petals to blow away in a passing gale, rather than drifting down to carpet the ground beneath the branches. Where possible, grow magnolias (left) beneath a canopy of taller trees that will protect the blooms from frost. Alternatively, a west-facing position, sheltered from the morning sun, will reduce damage to the flowers. Crab apples and cherries, however, need to be planted in full sun or they will put on a poor show.
‘Taihaku’, the Great White Cherry (left), is the most magnificent of all flowering cherries but might have been lost for ever without a chance discovery in a Sussex garden in the 1920s. The owner showed it to a Captain Ingram, hoping he could identify it: he wasn’t able to, but he took grafts and distributed the resulting trees. On a later visit to Japan he recognised it in an 18th-century book of paintings – it had disappeared from cultivation there 200 years before and all ‘Taihaku’ now originate from that Sussex example.
There’s something gloriously celebratory and uplifting about trees laden with blossom, so make the most of this annual event by planting your own, or paying a visit to a garden nearby to admire this stunning natural wonder.
Enjoy wonderful seasonal displays in these gardens and woodlands...
The Alnwick Garden Alnwick, Northumberland (www.alnwickgarden.com)
Batsford Arboretum Moreton-in- Marsh, Gloucestershire (www.batsarb.co.uk)
Brogdale Farm Faversham, Kent (www.brogdalecollections.co.uk)
Doddington Hall & Gardens Doddington, Lincolnshire (www.doddingtonhall.com)
Ness Botanic Gardens South Wirral, Cheshire (www.nessgardens.org.uk)
Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, Surrey kwww.kew.org)
Tatton Park Knutsford, Cheshire (www.tattonpark.org.uk)
The Valley Gardens Virginia Water, Surrey (www.theroyallandscape.co.uk)
Westonbirt Arboretum Tetbury, Gloucestershire (www.forestry.gov.uk/westonbirt)
Wye Valley (www.wyevalleyaonb.org.uk)