‘Loveliest of trees, the cherry now/ Is hung with bloom along the bough’: from a poem by AE Housman. Photograph: Robert Hardingead/Alamy
I am writing this in suspension, in a week unlike any other. Outside the weather has broken, the rains replaced by brilliant clear skies, and the sun is streaming through the window. We are with my father in hospital waiting for him to slip from a long illness and for the first time I can remember the spring has slowed.
The days have been filled with conversation and, with the luxury of time to think, I have taken myself up to the South Downs to taste the air. The route from the hospital runs along the base of the Downs, where the blackthorn has already sprung in the sunshine. Where it has hopped and run and suckered its way along the verges the blackthorn has formed cages that protect an inner world of primroses. As you climb from South Harting through the fern-clad hangers that wrap the village the spring recedes, the air is still cold. The blackthorn that hunkers into the tufted grassland has been held in readiness, and over the week I have watched the buds swell in their leafless transition from dormancy.
Few things are more beautiful than spring blossom and while I have felt the privilege of being here with my family, I have also had the pleasure of witnessing this change in blossom. The cherry plums that were already broken at the start of the week are changed, their tiny petals now falling and caught on breeze, as the first flush of leaf bud comes to replace them. Prunus cerasifera is the first blossom tree into flower, the dark thorn-clad branches breaking bud often in late February. The flowers are tiny and scent the air with a smell of almonds. One of the most familiar varieties is Pissardii, the dark-leaved form we so often see as a street tree.
Observe a blossom season and you will see one tree handing over its moment of glory to the next, as the varieties follow on from each other. First the cherry plum to the blackthorn; next the balloon-shaped flowers of the pears; then the delicate sprays of amelanchier, which cross over with the flurry of cherries. These are many and varied and range from the delicate and single to full-blown confections that are doubled and sugary. After several weeks the cherries finally give way to the crabs and the apples, which are dimmed only by leaves breaking on the trees as spring gives way to summer.
That moment, however, before the blossom breaks, is perhaps the most wondrous. On the news in Japan, the Hanami season is charted in blossom maps that mark the movement of flower across the country. I shall never forget a cherry tree in Kyoto lit with braziers at dusk. It was a veteran, with elderly branches reaching down to the ground. We stood in a hushed silence to watch the remarkable show.
I urge you to get a blossom tree if you do not have one, for the chance of witnessing this window of spring. Slowed for a moment, you too can take in the miracle.
An apple tree with a semi-dwarfing rootstock, such as MM106, will allow you the luxury of both blossom and fruit even in the smallest garden
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