This bud's for you: It's hard to beat the sight of flowers on the verge of unfurling
Sunday 27 March 2011
A switch seems to flip, the air warms, and somewhere there is the faraway sound of a bee buzzing. It's spring – so suddenly that it seems indecent, as if a lady has stripped off her clothes in the park and there's slightly too much skin showing. Things itch, scratch, wriggle and pop. And best of all, the world is full of buds, pink and rose and veined with green, and ready to unfurl any minute.
Funny, then, that the horticultural rules should be so against the whole idea of a bud. While I was chatting to Lady Skelmersdale, one of the judges at last year's Chelsea Flower Show, she told me that the über-posh show gardens are strongly marked down if their flowers aren't yet properly open. It means the gardens haven't been timed correctly, and that they ain't ready.
I find this a bit daft. Surely that's the most appealing thing about a bud? It's something coming into being, and not quite there yet. It's cherry blossom, in tiny pink concentrations, ready to burst. It's magnolia trees, which often look their best to me at this moment in time, with their pale flowers in bud, held like candles on the bare branches in furry cases, just starting to open. Delicious.
A magnolia is not normally a tree for a small garden, as they have a wide and spreading growth which looks damaged when pruned unless done very skilfully. But Magnolia stellata, with its purest white star-shaped flowers, is a fantastic plant for any garden where spring's first plunge is happily celebrated. It will only ever get to a bit more than head height, and even then, very slowly. One friend of mine has underplanted a single specimen in her front garden with white stones, which makes a dramatic and beautiful statement. Plants are currently on sale at Crocus, priced £17.99 (crocus.co.uk).
A liking for spring buds certainly leads lots of people to pay good money in supermarkets these days for pussy willow, with its gorgeous stems of furry catkins in tasteful shades of grey. They are traditional plants for Chinese New Year, and on Palm Sunday in Eastern European churches, but they don't need to come from the supermarket. Salix caprea "Kilmarnock" is a very pretty version, with long weeping branches with a dwarf habit, so it will never get too big. My neighbour has it growing over her front wall, so that the catkins are there for street-strokers such as myself. Every year you can cut a number of stems to bring into the house without damaging the shape of the tree at all: it's a vigorous grower, with a five-litre specimen coming in at £24.99 from Crocus (as before).
But my favourite buds remain those of fruit trees, even if they are ornamental – there's something about cherry-blossom buds against a deep-blue sky that lifts the soul.
And knowing the flowers themselves will last only days at most is a great lesson. Turn out now to see blossoms, and to picnic underneath the trees – a wonderful reminder of how quickly things can pass. 1
Prunus 'shirotae' (Mount Fuji)
A neat tree, this has an arching, spreading growth, with heavy loads of pure white flowers in April 15-litre pot, £35, burncoose.co.uk
Prunus padus 'colorata'
The most delicate of stems and pale pink flowers with carmine centres. Gorgeous – though will eventually become a 15m tree 15-litre sapling, £35, burncoose.co.uk
This tree collection in Gloucestershire holds the National Collection of Japanese sakura flowering cherries. There should be blossom through to May Entrance £6.60, batsarb.co.uk
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