Winter-flowering Cherry – the Great Deceiver

You may have noticed – possibly with some alarm – the delicate, yet persistent blooms of the winter-flowering Cherry which have been flowering for months now. The snow and ice of last week hasn’t been kind to them and many trees in London previously in full flower are now sporting a wilted coat of brown petals, but look beyond these and more flower buds are on their way!

Flower power: Winter-flowering cherry of the ‘Autumnalis’ variety going for it in mid-December

A few years ago a trend began for planting early or late-flowering (depending on your point of view) Japanese Cherries as street trees, and in some parts of town two closely related cultivars, like craft beer outlets, seem to be popping up on every street corner. Look out for the white flowered Prunus × subhirtella ‘Autumnalis*’ and the pink flowered Prunus × subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’

Millennial: The pink blooms of ‘Autumnalis Rosea’ on a February afternoon

For the uninitiated, the sight of Cherry blossom in the depths of winter has been known to elicit strong reactions from concern for seasons going haywire, to global warming incarnate. But, although I wouldn’t want to deny these very real climate change phenomena for which overwhelming evidence exists, the winter-flowering Cherry could not in itself be defined as an indicator. It’s supposed to flower in mild weather from November through to April. And this season, trees in London have been particularly good, blooming consistently since November despite the see-sawing of temperatures within the space of a few days. So, despite it feeling wintry out there, there has not, until last week been a sustained cold patch and this appears to have been exactly what this tree likes.

Frostbite: Wilting blooms mingle with new, unblemished pink flower buds on the ‘Autmnalis’ tree

Which leads us to the question: why does the winter-flowering Cherry flower in winter? The short answer is it has been bred to, its flowers are not filling an environmental niche to take advantage of a winter flying bee, it’s flowering because humans wanted something to cheer them up during the gloomy winter months. Prunus × subhirtella is known only from horticulture with Japanese origins disappearing into the mists of time. It is sometimes also called Prunus subhirtella – note: no ‘×’ denoting hybridity – it’s unclear (as with many other ornamental cherries) what parent species have hybridised to create our tree. Sometimes too, it is called Prunus pendula, an appellation most commonly ascribed to another cultivar, the spring-flowering weeping Higan cherry. This though seems to be sloppiness and it should properly be called Prunus × subhirtella ‘Pendula Rosea’.  Something else to look out for in Winter Flowering cherries is the last flush of blooms appearing in April with the leaves. These flowers differ from those of previous waves in having stalks – winter blooms are stalkless (or sessile).

Interestingly one of the world’s oldest Cherries, the 1,000 year-old ‘Miharu Takizakura’ in Fukushima province, is a weeping Higan and is often claimed to be the ‘most beautiful Cherry tree in Japan’. This is a cultivar unknown as a London street tree, but it may bode well for the longevity of the trees we do have, not to mention their long term potential for craggy good looks.

Dessert course: Delicate pink Cherry Plum (Prunus cerasifera) flowers of the ‘Nigra’ cultivar appear in March

As spring approaches, Winter-flowering cherries will be competing with other early flowering Prunus species, particularly the widely planted purple cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera) of either the ‘Pissardii’ (white blossom) and ‘Nigra’ (pink blossom) cultivars. If you’re lucky, you may see Almond (Prunus dulcis) with big pink flowers, Blireana plum (Prunus × blireana), with almost fluorescent pink blossom or another Japanese tree, Prunus × incamp ‘Okame’ again with pink blossom preceded by distinctive maroon coloured buds.

The University of British Columbia Botanical Garden holds that ‘Autumnalis’ should actually be known by its Japanese cultivar name of ‘Jugatsu-zakura’ 

Chiswick walk

The Greening of Kings Cross

“I can’t understand why anyone would want to buy a house on such an awful street.” These words, uttered by a passer-by 15 years ago, acted as a red rag to a bull for Wharfdale Road resident John Ashwell. A typically busy inner London street of multiple building styles and ages, Wharfdale Road connects York Way with Caledonian Road in Kings Cross. 15 years ago Kings Cross was a by-word for drugs and prostitution and was a very different place to the developed destination it has become.

Wharfdale Road 2002
Front Line: Wharfdale Road as it looked in 2002 just after the first trees were planted (Pic: John Ashwell)

Kings Cross forms an arc spanning two London boroughs from Pentonville Road to Marylebone Road with York Way at its apex. The Islington half was the crime hotspot while the Camden half was the dereliction centre of London. Now the Camden portion boasts a transformed St. Pancras station and the new Granary Square ‘quarter’ around Central St. Martins. Without the dubious benefit of a masterplan, landscaping and massive new developments the Islington half has had to make do with piecemeal private developments and community initiative. And this is where John, the original Kings Cross residents and the local authority came in.

John, a landscape gardener by trade, fired up by the throwaway remark overheard outside his front door, set his sites on no less a task that the beautification of Kings Cross starting with the planting of street trees on Wharfdale Road. Planting started after John raised money from local residents and the council released S106 funds enabling one half of a Cherry tree avenue. Over the next few years more money was released through public and private funding allowing the completion of the avenue planting. This second phase involved the narrowing of the road through incorporation of parking bays separated by tree islands transforming the street into the urban equivalent of a hollow way. All this has been achieved in the remarkably short time of 15 years.

Wharfdale Road in flower
Tunnel Vision: Wharfdale Road as it looked in the spring of 2016 (Pic: Sarah Ward)

Over this time a strong partnership has formed between the community and the council who all had the same goal of planting more trees and cleaning up their part of Kings Cross. In Wharfdale Road they planted a cherry avenue of Prunus avium ‘Plena’, a double white flowered variety of the common cherry and Prunus maackii ‘Amber Beauty’ a golden trunked Manchurian cherry with single spiked flowers (much better for pollinators). Within this corner of the urban forest over 300 trees have been planted including Islington’s first Olive (Olea europaea) grove on Fife Terrace and, something I’ve never seen elsewhere – Bay trees (Laurus nobilis) on Caledonia Street.

Of course, the trees on their own have not transformed this once scary corner of London (it would be foolish to ignore the presence of CCTV cameras and the millions of development pounds pumped in), but they certainly make the environment pleasanter and they have definitely helped calm the traffic on Wharfdale Road. Perhaps too they have contributed to making the area more hospitable for people which has in turn resulted in a proliferation of cafés and restaurants who don’t need to think twice about opening onto the street.

The community partnership allowed residents to get involved with street tree selection and  planting giving them a sense of ownership of the trees in their neighbourhood and, coincidentally or not, Islington has recorded the lowest rate of sapling destruction in this part of the borough.

Staying Olive: Islington's first Olive street trees on Fife Terrace
Staying Olive: Islington’s first Olive street trees on Fife Terrace

And here’s the street view of Bay trees in Caledonia Street, bizarrely the restaurant they shade is called ‘Thyme’: