Each spring, cherries take you by surprise. One minute, a black silhouette, the next an explosion of frothy pink and white. The more grudging the winter (and boy, has this one been grudging), the more you appreciate the abundance, the generosity of the blossom. Although most of the ornamental ones we see were originally brought in from Japan, I actually see suburbia as their natural habitat. As half-timbered semis began to stretch out into the hinterlands of the big cities, flowering cherries were the trees of choice for their new owners. A front garden with a cherry tree, a lawn, a crazy-paved path leading to the front door with its sunburst overthrow, a row of HT roses. There you have it. The Thirties incarnate.
We've got cherries of our own in Britain, but they are wild things – blackthorn, gean, not particularly showy. The Japanese cherries, a cult in the country that created them, are the result of centuries of breeding. The first few came in with Algernon Mitford (grandfather to the famous sisters) who in the 1860s had travelled widely in Japan as second secretary to the British Legation. When in the 1890s, he inherited the family pile, Batsford in Gloucestershire, he laid out a garden heavily influenced by the landscapes he had seen in the east. Bamboos were his first love but he also planted masses of cherries and the garden now holds the National Collection of Japanese flowering cherries (115 different kinds).
That was the beginning, but the real craze started later because of Collingwood Ingram, who was so mad about cherries that even the Japanese recognised that he knew more about their national tree than they did. In 1926 he was invited to give a talk to members of the Japanese Cherry Society, where he was shown a painting of a superb cherry with huge white flowers, sadly extinct. Or so he was told. But Ingram recognised the tree, because he had seen it (on the point of collapse) in a garden in Sussex. On his return, he took cuttings from this ancient specimen, which is how the legendary 'Tai Haku' was reintroduced to the country that had created it.
It's still my favourite Japanese cherry, the only one I planted in our old garden and then again in the one we have now. But it's not called the Great White Cherry for nothing. It can get enormous, generally rather wider (10m/30ft) than it is high. In a small garden it's the spread that's the problem, rather than the height (8m/25ft). But it's a beauty, the flowers unfolding while the leaves are still young, burnished bronze. It got an Award of Merit in 1931, shortly after it was reintroduced, and still holds the honour of being one of the best of all the flowering cherries.
But what if you haven't got room for such a big tree, but still want the thrill of the blossom? Upright cherries may seem to be the answer, and among these, 'Amanogawa' is the best known, slim as a poplar, with several upright stems growing together, rather than a single trunk. In youth, as you see them (and fall for them) in the garden centre, they are irresistible, covered from head to foot in pale pink and white flowers.
But have you seen 'Amanogawa' as a grown-up tree? Most trees worth their salt look better old than young. Unfortunately, 'Amanogawa' has never learnt what to do after the taffeta party frock stage and looks hideously awkward and arthritic as it gets older. It gets like Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, an uncomfortable combination of old bones and little-girl clothes.
'Spire' ages better, perhaps because it is constructed in a different way. It keeps a single main trunk with small branches ascending from it. Eventually, like 'Amanogawa', it will reach 10m/30ft, but it grows into a gradually widening vase shape, a spire upside down. The flowers are soft pink and appear earlier than those of 'Amanogawa'. Both these pay rent in autumn, with leaves that turn a rich orange-red.
This is an important plus with some cherries. Although their blossom is breathtaking, it is short-lived. You need your tree to work harder for you, to give you fruit or autumn colour or pleasing bark, or a good outline in winter. 'Kursar' earns its keep as readily in autumn as in spring. It flowers early, usually from late March, dark twigs plastered with rich pink flowers and then blazes in autumn with brilliant orange-red leaves. If cherries colour in autumn at all, white cherries generally have butter yellow leaves, pink cherries have orange-red leaves.
In a smallish garden, the colour of the blossom matters perhaps more than it does in a big one. I'm keener on white than pink, but there are many more pinks than whites. The problem is not the colour itself so much as that pink cherries are so often seen together with daffodils. You can get round this by planting white daffodils, but there again, there are less of those than there are yellow ones.
The Japanese cherry 'Jo-nioi' has gorgeous white flowers, each set off by a boss of brown stamens. But like 'Tai Haku', it spreads, becoming eventually as wide (10m/30ft) as it is high. With these wide-reaching cherries, it's important to aim for 2m/6ft of clear trunk before the branches start to break. If they break too low, they will always seem like a barrier in the garden, something you have to duck under to get somewhere else. On the other hand, 'Jo-nioi' is scented, so you want a few flowers at least dangling within reach of your nose. They smell of gorse in sunshine.
'Umineko' is perhaps the best choice if you are looking for a white-flowered cherry that doesn't take up too much room. It's tall (up to 8m/25ft) but does not spread much beyond 3m/10ft. It's relatively early and the leaves turn a buttery yellow before they fall. Plant blue scillas underneath it, mixed perhaps with some pale chionodoxa.
Cherries are not difficult to grow and plagues mostly pass them by. Blackfly unfortunately congregate on the new shoots of my new double white gean, Prunus avium 'Plena' but I have not noticed aphids on other flowering cherries. By choice, they grow in soils that are slightly limey, but do well on most soils including chalk. Being shallow-rooted, they do not enjoy droughts. Mulching helps with that problem.
Cherries are not ideal for exposed sites. They will grow, but the blossom disappears with the wind, which defeats the object. Some cherries, such as the beautiful early 'Accolade', have such pliable wood that they grow in a permanently lopsided, windswept mode. That suits hawthorns, but cherries need some symmetry.
If you can bear to restrain yourself, plant in autumn rather than now. Dry summers are murder for young trees trying to settle. In autumn, they do not have to bother about anything except getting their roots sorted out, which gives them a better chance of surviving. In the long term, that is what you want, too. Spend time now looking, then book a tree for autumn delivery.
The Festival of Cherry Blossom at Batsford Park, Moreton-in-Marsh, Glos GL56 9QB runs until the end of April. The garden is open daily, £7. Call 01386 701441 or go to batsarb.co.uk