‘Cherry’ Ingram: The Englishman who saved Japan’s Blossoms

If you’ve been reading the newspapers or listening to BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week programme recently, you will already be acquainted with one of Britain’s most interesting but perhaps least well-known plant collectors, Collingwood ‘Cherry’ Ingram (30 October 1880 – 19 May 1981). Following a genteel and somewhat quirky Edwardian upbringing in Westgate-on-Sea, not so far from my home in Broadstairs, he married and moved his family south to the picture-postcard village of Benenden in Kent. Here he turned his attention away from his first passion, ornithology, to horticulture, quickly amassing a vast collection of plants from around the world.

A first visit to Japan in 1902, followed by a honeymoon there in 1907, further piqued his interest in the country’s culture and cherry trees. Cherry blossom, or sakura, had been revered in Japan for over a thousand years, yet the march of industrialisation, modernisation and the popularity of a cloned cherry, known as the ‘Somei-yoshino’, had led to a rapid decline in the diversity of cherry varieties grown in the country. Ingram was saddened by what he saw and determined to save what he could, sending over fifty endangered varieties back to England for safe keeping. Very quickly he amassed one of the most comprehensive collections of cherries in the world, arranging them in his gardens in series of ‘sylvan glades’ protected by pines and rhododendrons. With sufficient wealth to indulge his passion full time, ‘Cherry’ Ingram was in his garden by 6am each morning to inspect each of his trees, developing new grafting techniques that would ultimately reinvigorate weaker varieties and allow them to be reintroduced to Japan.

A young Collingwood Ingram in the photograph that graces the cover of a new book about his contribution to the conservation of Japanese cherries.

By 1926 Collingwood Ingram had established himself as an authority on Japanese cherries and was invited to address the Japanese Cherry Society on their national tree. It was on this visit, a sakura angyo (cherry blossom pilgrimage), that he was shown a painting of a magnificent white cherry tree that had disappeared from cultivation, along with many others. Ingram immediately recognised the blossom as that of a tree he had found growing in a garden in Winchelsea, Sussex:

Mr Funatsu brought me out one or two old pictures of cherries amongst which was one by his great grandfather probably painted about 120 years ago. (Mr F. is an old man). This kakemono depicted very accurately, if somewhat crudely, the large-flowered single cherry I found at the Freeman’s which I have named Tai Haku. Apparently its correct name is Akatsuki – meaning “daybreak” or “dawn”. The fine shape of the flowers and its pure whiteness contrasting with the pale golden bronze young foliage are clearly depicted. The diameter of the flowers – about 6cm if my memory does not fail – is also about right in the painting.

Mr Funatsu said he had long been searching in vain for this Akatsuki variety! It is a curious thing that it should be found again in a remote Sussex garden.

From the journal of Collingwood Ingram, 1926.

His Japanese hosts were polite yet incredulous. How was it possible that the only surviving example of such a nationally revered tree grew in England? For the Japanese was unthinkable that an Englishman might hold the answer. Determined to prove his identification accurate, Ingram returned home and succeeded in sending cuttings half way around the globe embedded in a potato. The scion arrived in Japan via the Tran-Siberian Express, thus successfully reintroducing the Great White Cherry, re-named ‘Tai Haku’, to its rightful home. That first cutting, now developed into a full-grown tree, can still be found in a nursery in Kyoto.

An elderly ‘Tai Haku’ cherry at The Grange, Benenden

Ingram’s book Ornamental Cherries, published in 1948, is a classic text but remains, alas, out of print and missing from my library. (If anyone should have a copy, please let me know.) Thanks to the book’s popularity the cultivation of ornamental cherry trees rapidly became de rigeur, with hundreds of street hurriedly planted up and named in the tree’s honour. In dreary post-war Britain the sight of trees clothed in candy-floss pink blossom each spring was just the tonic people needed. A stiffly upright variety with masses of deep pink flowers became an instant hit. It’s name was ‘Kanzan’, which means mountain border in Japanese. Each blossom has eight to ten times more petals than a single flower, creating an overwhelming sense of profusion. As the new leaves appear they are flushed with coppery -bronze and when they fall they turn orange and red. There is a great deal of snobbery about ‘Kanzan’, but having grown up at the time many of these trees were reaching maturity I have a certain fondness for their unashamedly exuberant spring performance.

A few days ago an English translation of a book on Collingwood Ingram’s contribution to the survival of Japanese cherries was published in the UK, the first edition selling out almost immediately. Naoko Abe’s acclaimed account is a fascinating tale of two contrasting cultures; of war, propaganda, astonishing beauty and one man’s passion for cherry trees that ran so deep that he became known as simply as ‘Cherry’ Ingram. As well as introducing a host of new ornamental cherries to gardeners, including ‘Asano’ which forms an avenue in Kew Gardens, Ingram also gave us Rubus x tridel ‘Benenden’ and Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Benenden Blue’.

Rubus x tridel ‘Benenden’

Ingram lived a long and full life, passing away in May 1981, just as the last cherry blossoms fell from the trees in his garden at The Grange. Now a residential home, The Grange’s gardens are being opened for one day only, on Sunday April 7th 2019, so that visitors might indulge in a little hanami, the Japanese term for flower viewing. Cherries are not the longest-lived trees, so this is an amazing opportunity to see some of Ingram’s original plantings whilst they are still flourishing. Make a date in your diary and be sure to pick up a copy of Naoko Abe’s excellent book whilst you are there. TFG.

Collingwood Ingram in later life.

The gardens of The Grange, Benenden, TN17 4DN, will be open from 1-4pm on Sunday 7 April from 1-4pm. Parking is available on The Green. All proceeds go to the Friends of Benenden Grange, who support adults with learning disabilities. More information here.

‘Cherry’ Ingram: The Englishman who saved Japan’s Blossoms is available from all good booksellers and from The Grange on opening day.

To catch up on Radio 4’s ‘Book of the Week’ programme, click here.

To read the excellent book reviews in the Daily Mail and Guardian, click on the newspaper titles.

Many thanks to Pamela Cross and Felicity White for encouraging me to write this post.

Catch it while you can …. cherry blossom is notoriously fleeting.