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

Reading time 10 minutes

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.

Categories: conservation, Flowers, history, Kentish Gardens, open gardens, Trees and Shrubs, Uncategorized

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

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25 comments On "‘Cherry’ Ingram: The Englishman who saved Japan’s Blossoms"

    1. Hello, and thank you for your blog post. I have a story which I’m sure you will like, concerning the cherry blossom. Back in 1973 possibly 1974, I was travelling up to Aberdeen, having been down to Dorset to visit my parents. I shared a first class compartment with a very old and extraordinary old lady. She told me the story of her father who was a keen gardener, who had travelled to Japan before she was born, and had brought back several white cherry cuttings – I’m sure you know where this comment is going, and yes, it was her father who saved Japan’s Sakura – cherry blossoms. Some years ago, because my Mother remembered me telling her the story, kindly sent me a clipping from a magazine she picked up at her dentist surgery. It was the first document I had seen which confirmed the story. How amazing then, to happen upon your blog by chance to bring this narrative full circle. I have the clipping to this day on my notice board in my studio.

  1. I love cherry blossoms, I suppose they are in full bloom in your place now? It is blooming this week in most part of Japan. Yoshino has the most beautiful cherry blossoms, its near Kyoto. One day please come visit…

    1. Oh I would love to! It’s on my bucket list. Cherry blossom does not appear so consistently here as we have more and different varieties. Urban Japan is dominated by the Somei-yoshino variety which was planted for patriotic / nationalistic reasons, but in the wild and in gardens there is more variety. I have not seen a lot of blossom here yet this year, but it’s on its way!

  2. Fabulous post Dan….so interesting. I love these tress so much..and yes the blossom is certainly very fleeting. We have 20 weeping standards from Fleming’s as a border tree in the front of the house And they are absolutely gorgeous when in flower.🌸

      1. They are pretty good once established… however just home today and I will be pumping the water in this week… also came home to $2100 water bill for last 3 months… 😢😢😢😢

  3. Great post Dan. I had the fortune of joining hubby on business in Japan during the sakura season. One has to be there to see how young and old take hanami seriously. Lots to see including the gardens in Kyoto…Might be one to add to your list if you are still contemplating your six month sabbatical at JL?

  4. I have just spent 7 days touring the island of Shikoku and the abundance of blossom is staggering. Every river and street are lined with trees but most beautiful and those dotted across the mountains.

  5. I loved this post. I bought my first flowering cherry, Kojo No Mai, on sale at a garden centre in the winter, as I had a nice pot and wanted a small tree for it. I can already feel the beginnings of an obsession as Kojo No Mai’s small white flowers and pretty new foliage catch my eye every day and the bees have been loving the flowers.

  6. Hi Dan, Thanks very much for the post – I think it sums up Cherry Ingram – and his importance – and gives a great intro to the special opening due this Sunday, 7 April of his former garden at The Grange. It is a fascinating garden with many of the plants that C Ingram brought back from his travels in various forms which have now grown very considerably since he planted them and then in the intervening years since his death in 1981. I hope that some of the blossom remains after the driving rain and hail stones that we have been receiving this week! Best, Pamela Cross

    1. Thank you Pamela. It has been an interesting week weather-wise, but from what I can see from the train, Kent’s blossom display is undiminished. Many thanks for flagging this special occasion to me, otherwise I would not have known. Dan

  7. I am just on the last few chapters of this fascinating book, was glad to see it reviewed here. I have a beautiful flowering cherry tree in my (small) back garden, a real treasure. When we moved into the house, I convinced myself it was a Kanzan, but now I am not so sure. And I am not sure I want it to be – Ingram was indeed scathing towards the poor variety! 😉 How lucky for those living nearby to be able to visit The Grange. I will encourage my friends in Kent. Is the open day an annual affair? I may try to make a special journey next year.

    1. Poor old Kanzan. You don’t see so many of them these days. I recall they were everywhere when I was growing up. There’s one close to Broadstairs station which is just about to burst into bloom. It’s rather a stiff-looking tree.

      I have listened to all five episodes of ‘Book of the Week’ and now have the hardback in my possession too. When I will get to read it I don’t know – I have not finished a book in years, much to my great regret.

      I’ve had a look at The Grange’s Facebook page and it sounds like the opening will become a regular event now. The Friends of Benenden Grange raised four times more than they normally do at an opening thanks to all the media coverage of the book and the event itself. They’ve also launched a crowdfunding page to raise money for the restoration of the garden. This all sounds very promising for future visitors. Dan

      1. Thanks, Dan! I am really glad to hear that the opening at The Grange may become an annual event, I am hoping to be able to plan a visit next year.

  8. Thanks for flagging this. I had heard of Cherry Ingram and knew he had lived in Bendenden so went this afternoon and despite the dull overcast weather it was lovely with a lot of blossom and loads of visitors. I hope that they open again next year.

    1. That’s good to know! I am sure they will open again if it was a success this year. The weather was not on its best behaviour, but thankfully it wasn’t a disaster either. Fortunately cherry blossom is quite resilient. Dan

  9. Thank you for this information and an enjoyable read. I too have attempted to find a copy of the book as I try to identify a beautiful large flat top cherry in the garden, planted in the id 1980’s I believe.

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