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With the garden having been, for the last couple of days, almost bewildered by the heat, spring and summer seem to be running together. Some of the old pear trees, once half-submerged in thirty years' growth of bramble, have suddenly flowered. One, a great swirl of branches, is like an explosion of flowers, and makes me think of that stunning and tiny painting of a pear tree in full fig in London's Victoria and Albert Museum. The artist doesn't say that it's a pear tree, but with the form of the branches and the denseness of flower, it could hardly be anything else.
The little tree, by Samuel Palmer, stood in a Shoreham garden about 1829. Perhaps planted arund 1800, it stands in the painting quite centrally, in a golden early afternoon light, with a mass of cabbages and flowers below, and, in the bosky shadows, all splattered in ochre, tawny browns, and scarlet, a Blakean woman in a red dress glides across the paths. It's magical.
The Shoreham pear tree, too, is flowering as if there will never be tomorrow. Yet, generally, there is; our pear tree goes on to hang its limbs with buttery yellow fruit, jade hard one moment, exquisitely juicy the next, and dreadful and mealy the one after. If you planted a pear tree, you could have Palmer's tiny revelation each spring, and pears afterwards too.
It makes it seem so strange that gardeners so often plant other early flowering trees, even the various sorts of Prunus like those malevolently pink Japanese cherries (suburban 'Amanogawa' especially), when they seem so dull in comparison to the most ordinary fruit species.
Really, the only drawback about pear trees is that the flowers can smell pretty nasty; Conference smells like sardines, and even Comice smells of fish meal (though they only do that if you put your nose right into their madder pink stamens). In colour, though, who can fault them? They're the purest white, and flower for you so voluminously that you would be hard pressed to find space for another single blossom.
All the other major fruits seem to smell nice, from the earliest of all, the apricot, which has an excitingly sharp perfume even though the white flowers (they look pinkish because the prominent reddish sepals show between the petals), are only studded along the branches. Here, in the North, against a wall, an apricot flowers in March, and will sometimes fruit if I remember to dab a small paint brush around the blooms.
Sometime soon, I must give myself another fruit species that I miss having. That's the myrobalan or cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera). You'll see them in most old Scots villages where they've been used for grafting and once supported a posh plum or greengage. Neglected, the myrobalan has usually overwhelmed the scion. I had once once that had grown to fifteen feet or so, and produced a soft drift of tiny white flowers as soon as spring begins to warm. They smelt rather like those tiny 'amaretti' biscuits, and looked wonderful in huge vases in the drawing room.
If you really must have some pink flowering trees in spring, then why not look amongst the peaches rather than the Japanese cherries. Unless you live somewhere brutally cold, or don't have a good south-facing wall, you needn't expect fruit (though somebody will probably write and tell me that they've ripened them in Caithness or Alaska). Different varieties have different flower sizes, colours and smells; Rochester's the largest and deepest pink we've grown, though the fruit is late, and you might better try growing the earlier Peregrine.
Both are quite wonderful in flower. If you don't want a wall tree, there are some lovely double-flowered peaches to grow as standards. Then, of course, there are the glorious cherries. Here, two that must once have been espaliered along the walls have slipped off the nails that once held them up, and have arched down over the path. We had to saw a way through, which left them looking rather ungainly. Worse, we always forget to make long socks of garden netting to keep the starlings from the pale fruit, so we don't get cherries either. The trees nearly went, but they flowered first, with such delirious abandon, and the bees hummed amongst the flowers so loudly, that I should think they're there for keeps.
In any case, they seem to be one of the early fruiting maydukes, now mostly vanished, and probably related to the ancient 'Kentish' cherries. These themselves may be of Roman origin, perhaps seedlings of the tree carted through the streets of Rome at the triumph of Lucullus, after he'd defeated Mithridates, King of Pontus. Lucullus found the tree at 'Cerasus' in Turkey, where they were the valued property of the vanquished king. Could you possibly cut down a tree with a story like that?
To get back to Shoreham though, it would be fun, with a small garden, to do a 'Shoreham'. One or two fruit trees, more or less central, then masses of flowers in Palmer's Shoreham palette, using rich pinks, garnet and scarlet amongst the last of the savoy cabbages, broccoli run to flower, chards and flowering salsify. You could add bronze, yellow and scarlet cowslips, tan, cinnamon and a few pink polyanthus, the new foliage of bronze fennel or rodgersias, grey green foliage of euphorbias like E. characias and E. robbieae, surmounted with their shaggy spires of yallery-greenery flowers. For brown, use dried blood brown of wallflowers (most marvellous in the ancient double Old Bloody Warrior), or soft purplish brown of the erysimums (look for E. mutabilis or 'Jacob's Jacket'). Victoria and Albert Museum, where the Shoreham pear tree hangs, won't ever let you take a cutting of it; yet you can easily have your own Samuel Palmer every spring if you choose, and have the same excitement each year. You'd save the entry fee, too.
Copyright david stuart 2004