In the year when the Queen turns 90 a surge in patriotism is to be expected. But the garden has its own royalty. I am sure that everyone has a view on what plants that might be but let me offer my own humble opinion.
Ornamental cherries are blossoming right now, filling gardens, parks and streets with clouds of ephemeral blossom from purest white to marshmallow pink. In Japan there is a special name for this moment:hanami. This centuries old custom refers to the way in which the transitory nature of the blossoms can be enjoyed. It is usually taken to refer to ornamental cherries but also includes other members of the Prunus family. Mainstream news channels in Japan often chart the progress of the blossom as the season advances through the country which can be from March to June.
Cherries both edible and ornamental make up only one member of the Prunus family which also includes apricots, peaches, nectarines, almonds, plums, damsons and sloes. The flowers generally appear on naked branches although by the time many ornamental cultivars open their blooms there is the pleasing addition of green or bronze foliage which gives a wonderful background to the flowers. Ornamental cherries come in a variety of sizes and forms. If you have the space for a monster, than Prunus avium is worth considering or the double flowered form P. avium ‘Plena’. The flowers hang in long drooping clusters in huge quantities from the end on April to the middle of May. On a tree which can reach 40 to 50 feet the sight is nothing short of spectacular.
If you are lucky enough to have a pond in your garden which can reflect the sky and the light then seeing the reflection of cherry blossoms in the water can be sublime. For smaller gardens there are a number of excellent cultivars to choose from. One of the most popular is the ‘flat topped’ shape. Perhaps ‘Shirote’ (sometimes called ‘Mount Fuji’) is one of the most famous, it is certainly one of the most beautiful of all the white flowered cherries. Thought it just might be outdone by ‘Tai-Haku’ the ‘great white cherry’. The story of this plant, which was thought lost to cultivation, it’s finding and propagation has become the stuff of gardening legend. It has the largest flowers which open Snow White from pinkish buds amongst bronze tinted foliage. It is very strong and easy to cultivate reaching 20 feet high and wide when mature.
By and large cherries can cope well with most garden soil but if yours is not particularly free draining or you have a high water table then you might want to consider the snowy mespilus, Amelanchier lamarckii. Their graceful trunks lift the delicate branches free of their companions. Where cherries are prone to dominating, Amelanchier lamarckii makes good company. When they are about to open the tree has a coppery cast, which gives way to just-pink flowers. The tree colours fiery orange and red: a finale to the growing season.
It is not just cherries that have that priceless royal quality, Rhododendrons are certainly aristocrats of the garden. Rhododendron schlippenbachii is also known as the royal azalea. The flowers are open, they look at you in a pastel pink shade. Native to Korea, China, Japan and asiatic Russia this hardy plant grows naturally at forest edges in humus rich, moist acidic soil. It prefers a warmer position here benefiting from some direct sunlight which will mean that you get the best of the autumn colour which can be red, golden yellow and orange. It is by no means the most common plant in gardens but it is worth seeking out from specialist nurseries.
Whilst azaleas are normally deciduous (though not always), Rhododendrons are well known as evergreens. Whilst the species have an undeserved reputation for being a bit difficult, the hybrids are really the glamour girls, stealing the show right now. Having said that the species are showy by themselves such as Rhododendron calophytum which has large open pink flowers above huge, long, shiny leaves. If you are looking for purity of colour the you cannot beat R. ‘Everest’, which, as you might imagine is pure white. By contrast ‘Horizon Monarch’ has wonderful apricot flowers on a plant that is vigorous and healthy. There has been a new addition to the Rhododendron family from a genus which was formerly allied under the name Menziesia. These are ericaceous shrubs (acid loving) which bear hanging clusters of small lantern shaped flowers reminiscent of a discreet Pieris. The cultivar ‘Honshu Blue’ has wonderful blue foliage making it a plant that stands out in sun or shade.
After a recent trip to the Himalayas I am sorting through the 2000 or so photos I took so I hope to be able to convince you of the merits of species rhododendrons but until then the garden has plenty of royal splendour to offer.