There was a cherry tree in the front garden of the house in Cheshire where I grew up. Every year in spring, when the delicate white blossom would appear suddenly, as if snow had fallen overnight, I would sense that brighter, longer days were on the way. It later succumbed to poisoning from a poorly sealed-off gas main.
Later, after university and marriage, when we moved into our first house – which may now be our only house – there was a cherry tree that blossomed every April to coincide with our daughter’s birthday, with the consequence that it soon acquired the appellation in our household as ‘the birthday tree’.
In my memory it seems that as the child moved round the seasons, every April birthday was celebrated under that tree – the dining table pulled out onto the lawn, a bunch of over-excited kids laughing and reaching for treats, and this cherry laden with pink blossom like dollops of ice cream.
These memories were provoked by listening to Fiona Stafford’s essay on the Cherry tree, part of the third series of reflections on ‘The Meaning of Trees’ she has produced for BBC Radio 3’s The Essay.
Stafford began her talk with examples of the cherry’s association with prettiness – the truly stunning beauty of their unrivalled spring blossoms ‘a short party trick trotted out once a year’ that lasts for barely a week. I knew about the traditional hanami festival during which the Japanese celebrate the transient beauty of the flowers of the sakura as the blossom unfolds like a wave, moving from south to north across Japan as the weather forecasts track its progress.
What I didn’t know is that a similar excitement grips the American capital every spring as 1,700 flowering cherries lining Washington DC’s Tidal Basin burst into colour in a stunning display. Fiona Stafford – who is Professor in English Language and Literature at Somerville College, Oxford – explained how the plantings of cherry trees originated in 1912 as a gift of friendship to the people of the United States from the people of Japan, when 3,020 cherry trees were shipped from Yokohama. Soon after their arrival, the First Lady Helen Taft and the wife of the Japanese Ambassador planted two cherry trees on the northern bank of the Tidal Basin. For the next seven years, workmen completed the task of planting the remaining 3,018 trees around the Tidal Basin.
The cherry has been around for a long time, Stafford informed listeners. The indigenous range of the sweet cherry extends through most of Europe, western Asia and parts of northern Africa, and the fruit has been consumed since prehistoric times. The introduction of cherries into the British diet has been attributed to the Romans, but Stafford spoke of prehistoric cherry trees excavated at the site of an ancient settlement in Ireland – suggesting that inhabitants of these islands had evidently been enjoying cherry feasts long before the Romans arrived.
Henry VIII apparently enjoyed cherries so much that he ordered the Royal Fruiterer to plant huge cherry orchards in Kent. It was there that British commercial cherry-growing really took hold, the fruit being harvested using traditional long ladders, and supplying markets all around the country.
Sadly, Stafford told how Britain’s cherry orchards went into catastrophic decline after Second World War in the face of global competition from Turkey, Germany and the USA. Ninety percent of British cherry orchards disappeared in a couple of decades. There has been a recent recovery – though these days it is usually dwarf varieties that are grown in polytunnels.
From exploring our appreciation of the cherry as blossom and fruit, Fiona Stafford went on to consider how cherry trees are also prized for their swirling, eye-ridden, colourful hardwood – one of the most highly-prized for cabinetry and furniture making because different grain contrasts can often be found in the same cut of solid cherry wood, with the grain lighter closer to the tree’s bark and darker closer to the heartwood.
Medicinally the bark of the cherry tree offered a traditional remedy for fever, and was valued as an aid to sleep. Cherries are bursting with vitamins and are high in fibre, and current research is exploring their anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory potential. Fiona Stafford gave several more examples of the tree’s beneficial applications. For example, since cherries are natural producers of melatonin, eating a few before retiring will ensure a good night’s sleep.
In Christian tradition, the cherry symbolized purity of character and was often called the fruit of paradise, the heavenly reward for a virtuous life. The pure white blossom is an obvious symbol of purity, but, as Fiona Stafford observed, it is the fruit that appears more often in Renaissance paintings of the Virgin Mary, such as Annibale Carracci’s tender painting in which Mary raises her finger to her lips to warn a cherubic John the Baptist not to wake the sleeping Christ. The cherries, of which one has already been eaten, symbolise heaven, his eventual destiny.
Fiona Stafford is no doubt familiar with another representation of this scene which she mentioned, since it hangs in Christ Church, at Oxford University. In The Madonna with Cherries from the school of Leonardo, ‘the entire background is’, she said, ‘a mass of glossy green leaves and even glossier red fruit’.
From the sanctity of the cherry, Stafford moved on to consider ‘the other side to the innocent cherry tree’: cherry-red lips ‘seem to say, come and play’, as the 17th century English poet Robert Herrick suggested in his famous lines:
Cherry-ripe ripe, ripe, I cry,
Full and fair ones; come and buy.
If so be you ask me where
They do grow, I answer: There
Where my Julia’s lips do smile;
There ‘s the land, or cherry-isle,
Whose plantations fully show
All the year where cherries grow.
The cherry, commented Stafford, is the tree for sacred and profane love, and ripe cherries, round and succulent, a treat for the senses as well as the soul.
Gallery: cherry blossom in Sefton Park
The other trees whose the symbolism and importance Fiona Stafford discussed in this third series of The Meaning of Trees were the Birch, Holly, Cypress and the Horse Chestnut, appreciated in Britain for conkers and for its majestic spread – and also as a symbol a symbol of hope, escape and the possibility of one day returning to normality for Anne Frank, writing in her diary about the horse chestnut that she could see from her window in the secret annexe.
On 23 February 1944, Anne Frank wrote:
Nearly every morning I go to the attic to blow the stuffy air out of my lungs, from my favourite spot on the floor I look up at the blue sky and the bare chestnut tree, on whose branches little raindrops shine, appearing like silver, and at the seagulls and other birds as they glide on the wind. As long as this exists, I thought, and I may live to see it, this sunshine, the cloudless skies, while this lasts I cannot be unhappy.
In August 2010, the tree was blown down by high winds during a storm; it was estimated to be between 150 and 170 years old.