Re-reading information about the The Alnwick Garden in northern England revealed a gem I hadn’t noticed during our summer visit – the cherry orchard with 329 trees is claimed as the largest collection of Taihaku trees in the world. But how could that be? After some enjoyable time following internet rabbit holes, it turned out to be quite a story.
In her 2019 book, The Sakura Obsession, Naoko Abe says that whereas in ancient Japan cherry blooms had been seen as a metaphor for new beginnings, by the 1930s official propaganda had turned the blossoms, which had a short and beautiful life, into a militaristic symbol (click on the link to read an extract).
The trees cultivated had changed over time too, and from the late 19th century, the newly developed Somei-yoshino trees predominated, thanks to how quickly they grew (from sapling to maturity in about 5 years), ease of propagation, and their beauty with the masses of pale pink flowers appearing before the leaves. Most significantly, it was a cloned variety which meant that all the Somei-yoshino trees bloomed and lost their petals within the same eight days – a startlingly dramatic reminder that millions of citizens could at any time be called upon to sacrifice their lives for the emperor.
Both the navy and the army incorporated Somei-yoshino blossoms into their insignia and, whenever Japan had something to celebrate, this was the only variety planted.Embed from Getty Images
Above: A bird’s eye view of the Taihaku cherry orchard at The Alnwick Garden.
In 1926, English cherry blossom enthusiast Collingwood Ingram (1880-1981) was invited to Japan to give a lecture to the Cherry Blossom Society. While in Japan he met Seisaku Funatsu, an elderly man he described as ‘the fountain-head of cherry lore’, at his home outside Tokyo where he was shown a 120-year-old scroll painting of a particularly prized variety of cherry tree which had been lost to cultivation in Japan. Almost unbelievably, Ingram recognised the tree. His polite host didn’t question this assertion but his doubt was evident.
Ingram also learned that the tree he called Taihaku (big white) was known in Japan as Akatsuki (daybreak/dawn).
Ingram had acquired his tree from two cherry fanciers in Sussex who had first heard about it in 1899 from a grower in Provence, Robin Lane Fox writes. They had then ordered like-sounding trees from Japan. Their own ageing tree was in poor condition but Ingram took pieces for grafting and soon had it growing well.
Unfortunately, the first grafts he sent to Japan arrived dead – killed by heat at the Equator or rotted. Finally, in 1932, he tried pressing the bottom ends of the grafts into cut potatoes and sent them via the trans-Siberian railway, a cooler route than by sea. Success!
The Taihaku tree Ingram helped grow is still flowering in Kyoto and all of the Taihaku in cultivation around the world today are offspring of that one tree in England.
Ms Abe describes Ingram as a cherry-tree colossus for besides saving other varieties from extinction, he also had in his garden in Kent the world’s biggest collection of cherry trees outside Japan, more than 120 varieties, many gathered during that 1926 trip.
He is said to have been the first person in the world to create new varieties by artificial hybridisation, including the Kursar tree, a fusion from northern and southern Japan; and his 1948 book Ornamental Cherries resulted in widespread plantings across Britain. Among the plants named for him is Prunus ‘Collingwood Ingram’, bred from Prunus Kursar. Ingram introduced about 54 new varieties, with 15 receiving the Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society
On his death, Ingram’s collection of Japanese art was bequeathed to the British Museum. Read more here, including an ‘entertaining’ account of his driving skills.
The Taihaku cherry tree is available from several nurseries in New Zealand.