Every year in early Spring there is a spectacular flowering of cherry blossom trees in Winterbrook Road and Stradella Road that brings a touch of Japan to South London. These are the beautiful Yoshino Cherry trees, scientific name Prunus x yedoensis, that is a hybrid cherry between Prunus subhirtella and Prunus speciosa, produced in Japan and native to the Yoshino District in Nara. It is a clone from a single tree and is propagated by grafting. Yoshinos are now exported all over the world and are sometimes known outside Japan as the Tokyo Cherry.
The Yoshino Cherry has been described as one of the most floriferous and beautiful cherry trees, but was unknown in the UK until it arrived in Kew in 1910 from Germany. Even in Japan the Yoshino was unknown until 1868. It was propagated commercially from the 1920s and valued for its distinctive blossom and as a rapid grower. It was found to be particularly attractive to bullfinches which would devour all of the flower buds. Fortunately we don’t see too many bullfinches in London.
The Yoshino is a graceful, early flowering tree with upright, spreading branches, but is hardy and grows well as a street tree. There is a profusion of almond-scented, blush-white flowers tinged with pale pink that emerge in late March and early April in clusters, each with five white or pale pink petals. Bees find the blossom very attractive. The fruit is a small cherry which is bitter to the taste, the red juice stains fingers and clothes very quickly, but small birds love the taste. The leaves are alternate, broad with a serrated margin, often bronze coloured, turning green by summer, and then yellow in the autumn creating a beautiful contrast to the shiny black fruits. This is an elegant and colourful tree for much of the year.
The Yoshino has not been planted very much in the UK until very recently, and not at all as a street tree. The first two Yoshinos that were planted locally were located in Melbourne Grove in East Dulwich in 2008 in front of a small Urban Orchard at the suggestion of Robin Crookshank Hilton with the support of Oliver Stutter, tree officer at Southwark Council. This was a trial because many trees do not survive being planted in streets or grow too large or lift the pavement. There are several popular street trees that are now lifting pavements and have become less popular with tree officers. So far Yoshinos have proved very suitable street trees.
Robin and Oliver were then looking to plant Yoshinos more extensively in a local street. By a happy coincidence a resident of Winterbrook Road, David Langley, had suggested the planting of some Yoshinos in his street, having admired them in blossom abroad. The first of the 30 Yoshinos were planted in Winterbrook Road in 2012. They are planted on both sides of the road, forming an avenue in the best Japanese tradition. These trees are thriving as they mature. In Stradella Road there are now another 15 Yoshinos but so far just planted on one side of the road. It is hoped to plant several Yoshinos on the other side of Stradella Road in the next few months to obtain the same effect as the avenue in Winterbrook
A group of 16 Yoshinos was then planted at the Dog Kennel Hill end of Melbourne Grove and are also growing well. Milo Road is a short road that connects Beauval Road with Lordship Lane with just 10 Yoshinos and no other tree species at all. There is another group of 8 Yoshinos at the top end of Greendale by the side of JAGS and opposite Alleyns, and can be seen from the main road.
It is believed that all of these groups of Yoshinos are the first trees in UK to be planted as street trees in avenues. All of them appear to be in good health, they are not lifting pavements and have required little maintenance to date. There are many species of park trees that are just not suitable for planting as street trees, but the Yoshinos seem to be
These Yoshino avenues in Herne Hill are now being mentioned in tourist guides and are included in guided tree walks. They are now being planted as street trees elsewhere in the country. As the trees mature they are expected to produce more blossom and look even more spectacular.
Robin first saw the Yoshino Cherry Trees in all their glory in Washington DC where millions of people visit every year in early Spring to admire the blossoming of many thousands of Yoshinos. The white and very pale pink blossom creates an effect of white clouds around the Tidal Basin and on to the grounds of the Washington Monument. These were first planted in 1912 when the Mayor of Tokyo made a gift of 3,020 cherry trees, of which 70% were Yoshinos, to celebrate the growing friendship between the United States and Japan. The First Lady Helen Taft and the wife of the Japanese Ambassador planted the first two trees and they are both still standing and flowering today. Further gifts from Japan have added to this marvellous display of blossom in Washington, and have led to Yoshino avenues being planted all over the USA.
The arrival of the Cherry Tree blossoms has been celebrated in Japan for many centuries. The ancient Japanese believed that the cherry trees contained spirits and made offerings to them with rice wine. This grew into the tradition of Hanami which is the custom of enjoying the transient beauty of flowers that dates back to the Nara period from 710 to 794. By the Heian period from 794 to 1185 this devotion had developed into Sakura which was a more narrow focus on cherry trees, celebrating the blooming of the cherry blossoms from the end of March to early May. Sakura was used to divine that year’s harvest and to announce the rice planting season. Emperor Saga of the Heian period held flower viewing parties with feasts and drinking sake under the blossoming boughs of Sakura trees in the Imperial Court in Kyoto. Poems were written praising the delicate flowers which were regarded as a metaphor for life itself, luminous and beautiful yet fleeting and ephemeral. This custom was originally limited to the elite of the Imperial Court but soon spread to the samurai society and eventually to the common people as well. At this point large areas were allocated as public parks and were planted with cherry blossom trees so that ordinary people were able to celebrate the festival.
The Yoshino Honey is a beautiful brown colour, has a mild fragrance of cherry, and a sweet-tangy, warm, buttery taste of cherries and almonds. It also has a long list of reputed health benefits. Last year the first two Yoshinos in Melbourne Grove were attracting many bees, so this could become a feature of the other local Yoshinos as they mature. Maybe we should also be planting Yoshinos in our local parks.