FEW people seem to know about the cherry plum, which is strange, given it is our first wild blossom to open. It is in flower now, with lovely white 50p-sized blooms which are illuminated beautifully by sunshine. In low morning or late afternoon light, the whole tree sparkles.
It is not native to the UK, but widely naturalised after being introduced in the 16th century from the Middle East. There are cultivated red-leaved forms with delicate pink petals and a reddish tinge to the stamens and twigs. These also turn up in woodlands and parks as wild trees and shrubs, thanks to the birds that feast on the small red or purple shiny fruits later in the year.
One of the reasons the cherry plum is so poorly-known is that most people assume this tree, Prunus cerasifera, is in fact a Blackthorn. It’s not: the Blackthorn or Sloe, Prunus spinosa, is only just starting to bloom in sheltered spots. You’ll notice that it carries its slightly smaller, often more densely-clustered flowers on bare branches with thorns at their ends. The easiest way to tell these two apart is to look at the bottom of the flowers at the sepals. These are the green outer parts of the flower that cover the white petals when it is in bud. For the cherry plum, the sepals are flung back, as though in a wind tunnel. Blackthorn flowers have patent sepals, which means they stand up and appear to clasp the open flower. On cherry plum, the leaves are either opening or clearly about to open as the flowers bloom. For Blackthorn, the leaves come later.
Within the next few weeks our streets will become a carnival of flowers from all over the world. Bright yellow mimosa is already producing clouds of perfume. Magnolias, which evolved before bees and therefore have strong flowers to withstand the clodhopping feet of pollinating beetles, will soon follow, as will the froufrou pink flowers of cultivated cherries. But none of these have the same exciting sparkle of the first cherry plum telling us that the spring really has begun.
Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of the Spectator and author of The Natural Health Service