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Things That Have Interested Me

The Fruit of Inertia

James Fenton
copyright © 2007

Originally published 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 lines.

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 were flukes.

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.

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