What is Britain's best blossom?
After three poor blossom seasons, parts of the UK are again in bloom. What is Britain's best blossom and where is it to be found, asks the BBC's A Question of Nature series?
For many people, the change in season from winter to spring is marked when bare tree branches suddenly burst into life, says Juliet Roberts, the editor of Gardens Illustrated.
"Blossom is a sure sign that spring has arrived. It has an innocent, simple beauty and its short lifespan is viewed by many cultures as a potent reminder of our own mortality.
"Looking out for what each season has to offer, however ephemeral the moment, is a lovely way of enjoying the here and now," she says.
Blossom is the term given to a cluster of flowers that bloom on any plant - so people include magnolia, hawthorn and blackthorn as "blossoming" varieties.
But "blossom trees" tend to be associated with those from the fruiting Prunus genus - cherries, plums and peaches, although they also include Malus - apples and crabapples, and Pyrus - pears.
Traditionally though, when people imagine blossom, they think of ornamental cherries.
"Most people think of cherry blossom because it's the most dense and has a lovely hue," says Ted Hobday, chief guide at the National Fruit Collections at Brogdale Farm, Kent, home to more than 4,000 varieties of fruit tree, some dating back to Roman times.
Your sightings via Twitter
- I saw my first blossom of the year in January! Makes a change from 4ft snowdrifts :) @JulietteAdAstra
- Loads of blossom down in Helston, Cornwall already! @BenAndFi
- Blossom out all the way on journey from Bolton to Wigan, two trees in Wigan on Spencer Rd/A49 junc the best ones @NorthWestNosh
- Yes, plenty of trees here been in blossom for a couple of weeks now. South East London is the place to be! @HonorOakWI
- I haven't seen any! But definitely suggest Osterley Park is a good place to spot blossoming! @CCroft21
In Japan, cherry blossom symbolises clouds, and is a metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life. The country is known for its annual cherry blossom festival Hanami, which has its roots in the 5th Century.
Wild cherry trees are known as Yama Zakura or mountain cherries, while a group of ornamental garden cultivars are known as Sato Zakura. The most common in Japan is Prunus x yedoensis, thought of as the original Sato Zakura.
Many Japanese varieties have been imported to the UK over the years but native species remain popular too.
The Natural History Museum is in the third year of its national three-year cherry blossom survey. Interim findings into where cherry trees grow in the UK show Japanese cherry trees are the second most frequently recorded after the wild cherry, with the trees' most popular setting in private gardens.
That isn't surprising, according to some of Britain's top gardeners.
"Blossom is the portent for the year," says Simon Tetlow, deputy head gardener at Tatton Park, Cheshire.
"It's the promise of things for the year ahead; good crops for later in the year and nice sunshine to be working in as summer approaches.
- Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) is one of the first trees to flower in early to mid spring, when it produces a mass of white blossom. It bears fruit (sloes) in autumn.
- Yoshino cherry (Prunus x yedoensis) blossoms in late March and early April. Flowers are white or pale pink with a delicate fragrance. Later in the year these trees produce small red fruits.
- The cup-shaped white flowers of the wild cherry (Prunus avium) appear in April even before its leaves. A common woodland tree but also often planted, it is widely cultivated for its fruit.
- The pale pink flowers of the winter-flowering cherry (Prunus x subhirtella 'Autumnalis Rosea') open during mild weather from November through to March.
"The first blossoms give that feeling that you've beaten winter and the worst is behind you," he says.
Tony Kirkham, the head of the Arboretum at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew "loves blossom".
"I think it's a national uplift," he says. "We haven't seen much sun, even though we haven't had much snow or rain this winter. As soon as trees come into blossom, spirits are lifted."
The last three blossom seasons have been patchy at best, according to gardening experts. And while it may seem like blossom is early this year, in fact the season is right on time, says Tony Kirkham.
"Lots of ornamental plum trees are in flower at the moment. They're a pink and white, fine single flower. Blackthorn will probably start moving quickly into blossom. Hawthorn is usually at the end of April but could be a bit earlier."
At Brogdale Farm, Ted Hobday says, the blossom season runs for months.
"All trees flower at different times - the plums are beginning to start now, and plums and pears really come through mid-late March.
"Cherry blossom is en masse in mid-April, and depending on the week apple blossom is late April until the third week in May. You will never see all the blossom at the same time."
Blossom locations gardeners recommend:
|Where to go||Unique traits|
Japanese cherries made their first entrance in the gardens in 1909
The Alnwick Garden in Northumberland
Claims the largest collection of great white cherry (Prunus 'Taihaku') in the UK
Brogdale Farm in Kent - home to the National Fruit Collection
The Blossom Walk in mid-April marks the start of its seasonal fruit festivals
Silk Wood in Westonbirt Arboretum, Gloucestershire
A semi-natural ancient woodland and home to early flowering cherries
Tatton Park, Cheshire
Deputy head gardener Simon Tetlow recommends visiting at Easter time
Valley Gardens, Windsor Great Park, Windsor
The gardens have been continuously planted since the middle of the 18th century
Batsford Arboretum, Gloucestershire
Boasts a range of Japanese cherry trees displaying blossoms from white to fuchsia pink in colour
Ness Botanic Gardens, South Wirral
Features a collection of cherries along with other flowering trees and shrubs
The locations of the UK's best blossoms are hotly debated, but the Natural History Museum survey has located trees in the most far-flung corners of the country.
The northern-most cherry is in Mainland in the Orkneys, where there are few trees of any kind, the southern-most a bird cherry in Guernsey, and the most westerly a Japanese cherry in the Scilly Isles.
The spread of blossoming trees around the UK and the changes in weather in different geographical locations means flowering happens at different times.
Boughs should be heavy with blossom in the north by April says Simon Tetlow.
"The blossom in Tatton Park is really strong around Easter and I recommend a visit then.
History and myths:
- In Japan, the tradition of celebrating flowering cherry trees can be traced back to the 5th Century.
- Hanami or "flower viewing" is still an important festival in Japan, coinciding with the flowering of cherry blossoms.
- Although not in the Prunus genus, hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) or "May" blossom was used to decorate maypoles to celebrate the start of summer in Britain in Medieval times.
- Hawthorn was believed to be very bad luck if brought indoors, signalling illness or death in the household.
"Other places in the region are Ness Botanic Gardens on the Wirral for a good early show of blossom. Arley Hall and Gardens as well as Dunham Massey are also good."
Tony Kirkham has a few recommendations of his own for places to see blossom further south.
"Other than Cherry Walk at Kew, good blossoms happen at the Valley Gardens at Windsor Great Park," he says. "Brogdale in Kent is a fantastic place - I always go to look at the blossom there each year.
"And Batsford Arboretum is another great place for cherry blossom."
But there are factors that could shorten the season in different areas, including heavy rain, which can destroy flowers.
"What you want is a fairly chilly and damp January and February, a warm and sunny March, and some rain, not downpours," Ted Hobday says.
Tony Kirkham says gardeners and admirers definitely "do not want frost now" as when trees are in blossom, they are at "their most vulnerable" to disease such as blossom wilt, where brown rot infects fruit.
Trees can also be infected by bacterial canker, which causes shotholes to appear on stems and leaves of plums, cherries and related Prunus species. Cankers begin to form in mid-spring and soon afterwards shoots may die back.
But a good blossom also depends on the conditions experienced the previous year, says Simon Tetlow.
Tips for growing fruit tree blossom:
What to grow:
- Plant medlar (Mespilus germanica) and quince (Cydonia oblonga) for profuse blossom. Any of the classic fruit trees, such as apple, pear, plum and cherry will also perform well.
- For apple and pear trees, prune between November and March.
- For stone fruit trees (plum, cherry and nectarine), prune between May and August.
Problems and prevention:
- Blossom wilt is caused by a fungal disease. It can affect the blossom of fruiting and ornamental trees, resulting in brown and shrivelled flowers.
- Prevent the fungus spreading by pruning out affected buds and branches.
Tips provided by John Edgeley, RHS fruit trial panellist
"Autumn the previous year is very important for ripening of the wood. At this time of year the nutrients from the leaves are pushed into stems as sugars for the formation of buds throughout winter. Trees aren't completely dormant in winter - buds are developing very slowly."
He says factors that affect the timing of blossom are the amount of frost and also the amount of light a plant receives.
"There are three dormancy phases in a plant's cycle: early rest, winter rest and after rest. In the after rest period, certain plants require a certain amount of 'frost units' to break dormancy. The minute the temperature increases and the light increases there will be a strong synchronised blossom set in that region.
"Whether it's been a mild or cold year previously, most indigenous species are robust enough to deal with the conditions and tend to blossom at roughly the same time each year.
"However, for a lot of the exotic plants such as cherries, the conditions of the previous year affect blossoming more than for indigenous trees."
With parts of England already in drought, next year's blossom could be affected says Tony Kirkham.
"It's going to be a tough year for trees. Whatever rain happens now will probably be too late, and by June or July it will be a really tough period."
Have you seen stunning blossom? Do you have beautiful flowers near you or can you recommend anywhere to see beautiful blossom? Send your comments and images to BBC Nature via our Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Additional reporting by Hannah Briggs and Michelle Warwicker.