Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’: winter-flowering cherry, rosebud cherry
January can be a debilitating month, all dark, dreary and joyless. When I think of January, little positive springs to mind, only diets, resolutions, needing to exercise, refraining from alcohol, writing thank you cards and the guilt related to not tackling any of the aforementioned, which I haven’t, in case you were wondering. Although I celebrate my birthday early in the New Year, it is still a struggle to motivate myself in the days and weeks that follow. As a gardener, I search fervently for the slightest sign that spring is approaching; a faint glow in the sky at 7am; the emergence of narcissi and snowdrops through cold soil; a proliferation of seed catalogues dropping through my letter box. I look at my garden and struggle to imagine it could ever attain the glories of August again. Yet over the last week or so the birds have changed their tune. I ought to be able to discern which is which from their song, but I cannot. I do know that they’re aware that spring is coming. This morning, walking to the station, the birds were singing a wistful melody, as if exclaiming ‘here we go again!’. I understood exactly what they meant.
If I were a bird, and thank goodness I am not as I am not great with heights, there’s only one tree I’d want to perch in right now, and that’s Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’, the rosebud cherry. So ubiquitous is this tree in gardens that I guarantee you have seen one, even if you have not acknowledged it. The rosebud cherry is one of those trees that fades all too readily into the background, yet is endowed with many sound qualities. An elegant silhouette is not one of them, let’s get that out of the way first, but its natural shape is pretty enough and charming for a meadow, orchard or wild garden. The canopy is not dense, allowing planting beneath, but be aware that flowering cherries have shallow roots so are not suited to planting in frequently mown lawns.
Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’, has pink-tipped buds that open into blush-white blossom. The variety ‘Autumnalis Rosea’ is a subtle variation with mature flowers that are slightly, well, rosier. Both trees bear blossom on naked branches any time from October to April, but most prolifically when the weather is mild. A few stems cut and placed in a vase of water will remind you of spring during the depths of winter. The delicate blossom is occasionally followed by small, bitter fruits beloved by birds. In spring, bronze-tinged foliage bursts forth from tight buds before turning an anonymous green. Then in autumn, you can look forward to the leaves turning golden-yellow before falling.
Small, hardy and tolerant of any soil type, Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’ is a tree for all seasons and all but the tiniest gardens. With so many positive attributes it’s hard to fathom why it’s not more widely applauded. Perhaps it’s considered too commonplace, or just not enough of a statement in an age where static, architectural plants are all the rage. Overlook the rosebud cherry if you will, but you’ll be missing one of the only joyous things to happen in January. TFG.