Cherry Ingram

Cherry Ingram

It is Golden Week or Ōgon Shūkan in Japan when the Japanese mark four public holidays, including Greenery Day. Originally established as Shōwa Day to mark the birthday of the controversial wartime Emperor Shōwa – or Hirohito, as we know him – the day was rechristened on his death in 1989, ostensibly to acknowledge his love of plants. It is a time to celebrate nature and give thanks for the blessings it brings. It is also a good time to remember the remarkable “Cherry” Ingram.

 

From left to right: Cherry blossom is a common motif in traditional kimonos, Cherry trees in Japan and Cherry trees next to a stream in Japan
All images © Martin Stott

The Sumida River Embankment in Edo (Tôto Sumida-zutsumi), from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fuji sanjûrokkei) by Utagawa Hiroshige I
(Museum of Fine Arts Boston)

Japan is said to have over one million cherry trees. At this time of year many will still be in blossom and you will often find families picnicking beneath them. The blossoms are gathered, and sometimes pickled or used as ingredients for sweets, in baking or in tea. They are commonly seen in Japanese art – almost as much as the iconic Mount Fuji. Wander the streets of Kyoto and there is a strong chance you will eventually come across women in traditional kimonos decorated with cherry blossoms.

The country’s relationship with the cherry goes back centuries. Between 1639 and 1853, Japan was closed off from much of the world and governed by regional governors or daimyō. Japanese arts and culture flourished. Daimyō Lords cultivated different varieties, planting them en-masse. Cherry-blossom viewing – or hanami ­– became a popular seasonal event for the whole population. The fragile, short-lived blossom – or Sakura – began to take on deep symbolism.

From ten wild species many different flowering varieties were nurtured – as many as 250 by 1860, perhaps. Their colours varied from white to crimson.

When American Commodore Matthew Perry led his four ships into the harbour at Tokyo Bay in 1853 and pointed his cannons at the shore, it signalled the end of Japan’s isolation. He forced its rulers to sign a series of demoralising treaties and open up the country. As a consequence, plant hunters could now begin exploring Japan’s treasured collection of cherry trees.

Cherry Ingram

Collingwood ‘Cherry’ Ingram in 1905

In 1902 a 21-year-old Englishman, Collingwood Ingram, made his first visit to Japan. As Naoko Abe tells us in her excellent book Cherry’ Ingram, The Englishman who saved Japan’s blossoms, this was to be the start of an astonishing love affair with the country and its trees.

Ingram was the grandson of charismatic Nottingham entrepreneur Herbert Ingram. Ingram had made a killing selling “Parr’s Life Pills” – a quack medicine that promised “to conquer disease and prolong life”. The pills were said to cure everything from bad breath to dysentery and were sold as far afield as New York. With the proceeds Herbert set up the Illustrated London News and grew his fortune further.

So, the young Ingram – on his way to becoming a renowned ornithologist at the time – was a well-heeled tourist. In 15 days he saw enough to become smitten and returned again five years later, on honeymoon. He may have seen more of the birds than his bride.

During the first world war it is perhaps not surprising that Ingram served as a captain in the Royal Flying Corps. By the time it ended he was 38 and looking for a fresh interest.

Weary of war, he had also wearied of ornithology. He wrote: “When the editor of one of the world’s premier ornithological journals deemed it of sufficient interest to publish a paper in which the author recorded the number of times a great tit defecated every 24 hours, I came to the conclusion that it was high time I occupied my thoughts with some other aspect of nature. I chose plants.”

And cherries in particular caught his attention. He began to collect as many varieties for his garden as he could find and to catalogue the different varieties available. This was not an easy task – often the same cherry would have different names in different parts of Japan.

“Only those who have visited Japan during the spring months can realise the fairyland of beauty presented by hundreds of these Cherries in full flower. No pen can do justice to such a sight – its splendour literally takes one’s breath away.”
Collingwood Ingram,1925

By this time, Ingram had built, with the help of friends and correspondents around the world, a collection of nearly 70 varieties in his garden, The Grange, at Benenden in Kent. His favourite was perhaps Sargent’s Cherry. He described it as: “A very fine cherry, and when its delicate rose-pink flowers intermingle with the vivid copper-red of its young foliage, it presents a strikingly beautiful appearance, and, in my opinion, is undoubtedly one of the best of its family. It is almost equally attractive in the autumn, when its leaves change to various hues of orange and crimson before falling. I am entirely in accord with Wilson when he says, ‘if one kind only can be planted, it should be this.’”

Prunus sargentii (Sargent’s Cherry)
Plant Image Library

In 1926 he revisited Japan and was shocked by what he found. The 1923 earthquake had wreaked terrible damage. But so, too, had industrialisation. Ancient gardens were neglected. Few seemed to care about safeguarding the less-easily propagated varieties of cherry. Indeed, the opposite.

One cherry was becoming ubiquitous, it seemed – Somei-yoshino. This was a cloned variety developed in the 1860s. Cherries can be short-lived, and when trees were replaced – if at all – it was often with this variety. In a diverse landscape the cherry blossom season can last many months. With the same tree planted it was a fleeting couple of weeks. Ingram had noted how the cherry was “emblematic of loyalty and patriotism”. Abe describes how politicians now used the shrinking diversity and ever-shortening cherry blossom season to twist this symbolism. The trees blossomed fleetingly together, coming to represent national unity and the fragility of life. The same symbolism was used to encourage young Japanese men to fall together, sacrificing their short lives by becoming kamikaze pilots to defend a lost cause.

Prunus × yedoensis ‘Somei-yoshino’ (Yoshino cherry)
Uberlemur, CC BY-SA 3.0

It was too early for Ingram to detect this poisonous shift. But he certainly noticed the loss of diversity and the deterioration of collections. Forming friendships with a handful of passionate cherry experts, he decided to do what he could to safeguard Japan’s rare cherries. They would send him scions of trees. He would graft and grow them and share them on.

Taihaku

One of the cherries in his own garden was a tree with beautiful white blossoms. He had found it while visiting a friend in Winchelsea. It didn’t have a name so a Japanese tree specialist visiting Ingram in 1925 christened it for him – Taihaku, or the “great white cherry”.

On visiting Japan in 1926, Ingram could find no trace of it. One day a kimono-clad host, sharing paintings with him of various cherry trees, unrolled a scroll showing a cherry plant with immense white blossoms. It had been painted by his grandfather 130 years earlier. It was now extinct, said the old man sadly. Ingram was astonished. It was Taihaku. “This cherry is growing in my garden in Kent” he exclaimed. It was to take Ingram several attempts to return scions of the tree safely back to Japan, but he managed it.

Taihaku
SLIMHANNYA, CC BY-SA 4.0

More recently – in 2022 – Oxford Botanic Garden returned five more cherry varieties to Japan that had become extinct there but were surviving in the UK. Three of these – ‘Daikoku’, ‘Asano’ and ‘Okiku-zakura’ – had been introduced to the UK from Japan by Collingwood Ingram in the 1920s and 1930s. They now grow once again in Japan, in Toyama Botanical Garden.

A young Sakura Cherry Tree in the grounds of Rochester Cathedral

A young Sakura Cherry Tree in the grounds of Rochester Cathedral

Sakura

Meanwhile, between 2019 and 2023, in a reciprocal act of friendship, the Sakura Cherry Tree Project resulted in thousands of cherry trees being planted across the UK, with the financial help of many Japanese and UK companies. They symbolise the deep-rooted friendship between the UK and Japan – a healthy symbolism that Cherry Ingram would have appreciated.

 

Banner image: The Chidorigafuchi Moat at the Imperial Palace Tokyo (KimonBerlin, CC BY-SA 2.0)

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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.