|The Fruit of Inertia
copyright © 2007
in The Guardian
7 April 2007
I look at the streets. They were planted for
pleasure, not profit. The flowering cherries and the crab-apples,
the magnolias and forsythias are only there because they are
considered beautiful. Sometimes, it is true, one can still see
traces of old working orchards - tall and aged pear-trees left
standing by the developers. But most of the trees in towns were
planted for beauty and beauty alone.
And they create two kinds of beauty. The plantings
of the authorities give us avenues and roundabouts, banks and
verges, creating a grand effect of masses and sequences. The
individual gardens seem rather to revolt against this element
of planning. This is where trees get planted in the wrong places,
too near together or close to the house, or straight under telephone
It is in the private gardens, generally speaking,
that the typical elements of spring discord are introduced,
where one particularly notorious cherry, Prunus "Kanzan",
of a very insistent pink, comes up against the brighter forms
of forsythia, neither colour helping the other along.
But what would you prefer? I have sometimes
seen streets in America where it was clear that every garden
on the block had been colour-coordinated for a general harmonious
effect. There was an immediate elegance, combined with an unmistakeable
sense of social control, rather as if everyone were wearing
the same clothes. It is not hard to see that there is a beauty
and value in uniformity, when the street in question is a Nash
terrace. No one would apply the same rules to a 1950s estate.
The hardest thing in gardening is to have second
thoughts about a tree. It is expensive anyway, and beyond the
strength or skill of most individuals, to cut a mature tree
down and to root out a stump. So a great deal of what we see
on our streets is the result of inertia, and there is much beauty
as well as ugliness in the result. Those straggling old pears,
whose fruit is never picked, would have been taken out long
ago if an orderly mind, and some spare cash, had been brought
to bear on the subject. That superannuated cherry, with its
fat cylinder of a trunk fitting improbably on the line of the
old graft, is well past its flowering best.
And then there are all those non-blossoming
evergreens, far larger than they should be, and hedges of them,
half hacked away, failing to renew themselves, the despair of
their owners and of their neighbours - or perhaps simply objects
of utter indifference. They are ugly enough when viewed as growing
specimens. But the effect of removing them may be uglier still.
Perhaps they were the last plants holding out against desertification.
The beauty of the suburbs at this time of year
is compounded for me by the fact that I have long since accepted
I cannot compete in two key areas. Magnolias will not even get
going for me. And the great Japanese flowering cherries will
not stay healthy for long. It is a matter not of climate, but
of heavy soil: a mile or two away, the same rules do not apply.
But you can see from the hedgerows around us,
which are completely free from wild cherry, that we are not
a favoured spot. There will be apple-blossom in our hedges,
and wild plum, and you might think that cherry would just fit
in on such a soil. But it does not. Nor is it possible in the
long term to fool a tree. In raised beds, we can and do grow
the smaller forms of cherry, but not with their feet in the
cold wet ground.
"Only a fool plants a cherry," is
the rather surprising saying among Tokyo gardeners, meaning
that if you plant a cherry in a narrow city plot you will exhaust
the other possibilities for that piece of ground. But who follows
this wisdom in Britain? Who, anyway, thinks hard before planting
a tree? Our gardens were planted on impulse, using whatever
material was most easily available. And many of our best effects
If I was starting again from scratch, on this
same site where my garden has developed over the past two decades
(and it is a good site, it was well chosen for a garden), I
would know not to bother with Japanese cherries, or with magnolias.
But I would also be more alert to the virtues of the crab-apples,
the Malus species, not because of their fruit - although that
is nice enough - but because of their extraordinary density
of flower at this time of year.
They miss out, perhaps, on the reverence accorded
to the cherry, but they play an important and characteristic
part in the Easter season. "Profusion", whose young
leaves, as well as flowers, are purple, was slow to get going
with us, but here it still is, while the original cherries are
nearly all gone. M. robusta, the Siberian crab, is one with
long-lasting fruit which change colour as autumn progresses.
And there is M. floribunda, about which WJ
Bean in the standard reference work on trees and shrubs is most
enthusiastic. He calls it "perhaps the most beautiful of
all crabs in flower. It blossoms towards the end of April, producing
then an amazing profusion of flowers, each branch a garland.
Perhaps its beauty is greatest when half the flowers are expanded,
the pale pink contrasting with the rich rose of the other half
still in bud."
If I was starting a small town garden and had
room for one tree, I would think of this crab-apple as a very
strong contender. Bean is right that its great moment comes
during the unfurling, rather than at the climax of the blossoming,
when the two-tone effect of rose on rose, and the sense conveyed
of a philosophy that you simply cannot have too many flowers,
are diagnostic of the variety. But it grows wider than it is
tall, and one would have to be prepared for that. It reaches
between 20 and 30 feet in height. It would need space, or it
would end up as so many suburban trees end up - hacked around,
curiously lopped, and with rectilinear bites taken out of them
where the telephone lines come through.