The winter-flowering cherry is icing on cake
Published 13/01/2013 | 05:00
LOTS of plants have been revelling in the mild weather of recent weeks, only this week came the first significant frost in several weeks. Snowdrops are in flower in most places and witch hazel is well ahead of normal. There has been plenty of rain too, but plants respond to rising temperatures, wet or dry.
Of all the plants that have shown well, the winter-flowering cherry has been the sparkling star of the show. This tree, also called autumn cherry because it begins to flower in autumn, is a real spectacle at the moment. It blossoms in stages with each spell of mild weather.
It is very distinctive in flower, broad-topped and often shaped like a shallow bowl. The blossoms are carried along its bare twigs, pink in bud, and palest pink fading to white as they age. The autumn flowers are long gone and now replaced by a new flush of flowers.
Prunus subhirtella 'Autumnalis' is a selection from a Japanese cherry species that flowers normally in spring. Spring-flowering cherries are triggered into growth by increasing temperature levels, but it would appear that this particular form has a lower trigger point than the species and opens its flowers when it senses even a briefly sustained rise in temperature.
It is too big for the tiniest gardens but can fit into most gardens easily. It is more often seen flowering in town gardens because its flower buds tend to be stripped out by feeding bullfinches in areas close to surrounding countryside.
These birds feed at dawn and are quite secretive, but the damage is evident, usually stripping the top of a tree and leaving the more risky lower branches to flower – a tell-tale sign that bullfinches have visited.
Another common challenge to getting the best from this lovely tree is damage caused by blossom wilt disease. This disease does not usually affect trees until flowering is nearly finished in spring when the spores are spread and cause a proportion of the emerging foliage to wilt and rot. Badly affected trees are often so weakened that they flower poorly the following winter.
Blossom wilt disease cannot be prevented but it likes damp conditions, so it is more troublesome in the wetter parts of the country, and in gardens where there is not enough air movement to quickly dry the foliage after rain. Despite these problems, the uplifting reward of a show of winter blossom is worth the risk.