‘Cherry’ Ingram – the Englishman who saved Japan’s blossoms

‘Cherry’ Ingram – the Englishman who saved Japan’s blossoms

This book published by Naoke Abe in 2019 has been a big hit with readers – and not just gardeners who love their cherry blossom. It tells the story of a wealthy Englishman, Collingwood Ingram, who developed a fascination for Japanese cherry trees on trips to Japan in 1902 and 1907. In the 1920s, when he saw some varieties becoming extinct, he set out to rescue them. By safeguarding these rare cherries in the UK and sharing them with other gardeners internationally he was able to ensure they could be reintroduced. I tell more of the story here.

 

‘Cherry Ingram’ The Englishman Who Saved Japan’s Blossoms – by Naoke Abe
Chatto & Windus

The best story in the book is about the reintroduction of Taihaku – the ‘great white cherry’. Ingram had discovered it in England in 1923. It had snow-white blossoms nearly two and a half inches in diameter. On a trip to Japan in 1926 a cherry tree expert showed him a picture of the same tree, mournfully telling him that it was now extinct. Ingram gasped: “This cherry is growing in my garden.” He vowed to return a scion, or cutting, of it to his astonished host.

It took him several attempts but he eventually succeeded – by pressing the bottom of the scion into a potato to keep it sufficiently moist and then transporting it from the UK via the trans-Siberian railway so that it would keep cool on its journey.

Political hijack

This is more than the tale of an eccentric horticultural obsession, though that in itself is interesting. It’s also the story of pre-war Japan – how the symbolism of the cherry blossom was hijacked by politicians and used to persuade young Japanese men to sacrifice their lives for their country as kamikaze pilots.

It is perhaps reflected best in this poem by a 20-year-old pilot written in April 1945:

For the glory of the emperor
What is there to regret?
As a young cherry

Life is most worthy when falling

Abe shares other poems like it. They are heartbreaking. She tells how, as the pilots set off to their deaths, schoolgirls at the side of the runway waved cherry blossom branches at them. In all, between October 1944 and August 1945, around 3,800 Japanese pilots died in kamikaze attacks. Their story is told today at the Chiran Peace Museum.

‘Cherry’ Ingram was born in 1880 and lived till he was 100. Even quite recently trees he safeguarded have been returned to Japan. And the cherry tree has taken on fresh symbolism – of the friendship between Japan and the UK. Look in tree catalogues and you will find some of Ingram’s cherry trees, too.

 

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About the Storyteller Gardener

Martin Stott is an award-winning journalist who has written for most of the UK national press and reported from 21 countries for the BBC World Service and Radio 4. The storyteller garden blog combines his passion for storytelling, gardening and history.