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Gardens Blog

My favourite plant… February

Prunus subhirtella 'Autumnalis'

Are you looking out of your window, searching for signs of spring and returning colour? If, like me, you constantly scan your branches and borders for new buds and shoots then perhaps this little tree will help to bridge that cold dismal space between the end of autumn and the arrival of that delicious veil of pale green chiffon over trees and hedges which announces that the warmer weather is finally on its way.

Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’, the autumn flowering cherry, is an unsung hero in the garden. Not over tall, shady or invasive, its smooth grey-brown bark blends quietly into its more eye-catching neighbours during the colourful seasons of spring, summer and autumn. Indeed it is only as leaves fall and petals drop in November that it starts to come into its own, producing dark pink buds which open into small semi-double white flowers along the length of the branches. These flowers turn back to pink as they mature and fade. The flowering period runs right through until March when the long ovate bronze-green deeply-toothed leaves arrive. These provide a suitable background for other more showy shrubs, and then turn striking flame shades of orange, scarlet and yellow before falling.  It would make a beautiful grove of small trees as a focal point to a dark corner, and even one standing alone, ballet pink and slender in the winter dusk, catches the eye and the heart.

In terms of siting, it is perfect in a woodland setting and also works well in more open ground – there is a beautiful mature specimen by the main cross-walk in St James’s Park in London which is a joy to see on gloomy days . The trees are hardy, not fussy about soil acidity or aspect and simply need sunshine and if possible a little shelter from the coldest winds. Their open airy structure means that plants will do well beneath – hellebores, wood anemones, spring bulbs and even lawn, although as a caveat do please remember that cherries are surface rooters and may make grass cutting difficult. Rough grass is probably a better location if space at the back of a border or woodland is not available.

In terms of height, although it is said that they are capable of reaching 8m (26ft) at maturity, they are slow growing and my own tree has been in the garden for fifteen years and is only slightly over 2m. The tree can be kept under control with gentle shaping if necessary, carried out on a dry summer day.

If you would like more pink from your tree, you should choose Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’ which will provide red buds and pink flowers which turn white as they age. Otherwise the same characteristics remain.

Faced with the choice of a spring cherry or an autumn one, I’d choose the autumn variety every time for its subtlety, delicacy of flower and colour, autumn shades and overall shape.  Seen against a grey sky, when all around is dun and sere, such fragility and soft sprays of colour and beauty are even more precious to the gardener, hungry for spring.