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Michael McCarthy: Blossom's special place in language

Nature Notebook: Blossom is a recurring theme of Japanese poetry

Sometimes you have to step outside your own language to see what it does best, and grasp its own peculiarities. French is a useful vantage point, in this sense, from which to look over English. There is no real French word, for example, for "home" with all its resonances; you can say la maison or mon domicile or chez moi but none of them quite gets what we mean in the sentence "a house is not a home". And similarly, there is no French word for "blossom".

The concept of flowering trees can be expressed, of course, in French: you say les arbres en fleurs, the trees in flower. But in English we have a special word for tree-flowers, and the fact that we do has always echoed my own feeling that there is something in the nature of blossom which is special in itself. Have you ever felt it?

If I saw a blossoming cherry tree in a bed of flowering daffodils, I would be more animated by the white blossoms above than by the yellow flowers beneath, although both might be terrific. Why might that be? Is it that they are high up? Is it that they are unexpected? Is it that they are so soon over? Perhaps it is that blossom, especially on fruit trees such as apples, cherries and plums, tends to appear in clusters, globular, pendulous and heavy, like the clumps of fruit they will turn into, and in their luxuriant opulence these seem to be the very quintessence of the floral.

The Japanese certainly thought so; blossom is not only an essential element of the Japanese print, it is a recurring theme of Japanese poetry. One of the best known of all Japanese verses is by the 9th century poet Michizane, addressed to the plum tree in his garden when he learned that he had been sentenced to exile:

When the east wind blows,
Send me your perfume,
Blossoms of the plum:
Though your lord be absent
Forget not the spring

Sweet as the cherry

I was prompted to think about blossom by the blossom itself, which has been vividly present for much of April, coming to a climax in the last two weeks. In our small suburban garden in south-west London we are blessed with three blossoming trees, an apple (a Bramley seedling, in fact), a cherry and a lilac, and in most years we tend to have a few days when all three are out together, decorating the garden handsomely in pink-and-white, pure white and pale lavender-blue.

At such times drawing back the curtain of my daughter's bedroom window causes a sharp intake of breath as the apple blossom is right outside and fills the whole window pane. Other blossom I have much enjoyed this year has included blackthorn, which whitens the branches of this spiny shrub of the hedgerows like hoarfrost, and the great roman candles of the horse chestnuts, big as pineapples: sadly, they are nearly over, and yesterday the rain was knocking them to pieces.