Simplistically, this is the story of Englishman, Captain Collingwood Ingram, a man in love with and obsessed with the flowering cherries. He became the world’s leading Cherry expert, exchanging cultivars with Japanese enthusiasts and, most famously, returning the Great White Cherry to Japan where it had been lost to cultivation. Alongside this story, interwoven with it through the book is the story of the cherry and of Japan – for they are inextricably intertwined.
Ingram was a wealthy man, self-educated, a man of leisure with time and inclination to pursue his passions in life. As a boy, it was an interest in birds, their eggs and their nests but he was a driven spirit with a desire to not only excel in his chosen field of interest but to be the leading expert, the leading authority. Ornithology was a crowded field and he abandoned it, though never lost interest, and turned instead to a study, collection and, later, to hybridising flowering cherry trees. What was the attraction? He says, it was their “refined charm, when in bloom, and a delicacy of colour and form that appeal to one’s aesthetic sense that others can never do.”
In the pursuit of his passion he made three visits to Japan where the cherry is far more than a nationally loved tree; it is embedded as part of the Japanese identity and part of the soul of the country. The cherry has been treasured in Japan for many centuries – in 1737, the 8th Tokugawa Shogun planted three miles of Yama-zakura cherries along the banks of a canal. On his visits to Japan, Ingrim met with Toemon Sano, an inherited name passed from father to son through sixteen generations, sixteen generations of Sakuramori, Cherry Guardians, those who sought out, propagated, and preserved the much-loved varieties of cherry. He exchanged propagation material with him and with others and they shared the losses and excited successes when their cuttings managed to make the very long journey between them alive, ready to grow again a world away from their countries of origin. Ingrim is best remembered for reintroducing the Great White Cherry, Taihaku, to Japan where it had been lost to cultivation.
Cultural and political changes lead to a decline in the number of cherry varieties being planted and a single clone of cherry dominated all cherry planting in Japan through the last century. The cherry cultivar, Somei-yoshino, had come to dominate cherry planting to such an extent that it almost amounted to a monoculture – horticulturally, not a good practice and culturally, one which aimed to form the Japanese nation in the twentieth century in a way which was not good for its people. It was promoted as a symbol of national unity and modernity but with a change in emphasis in the manner in which the cherry was esteemed. Somei-yoshino is a cultivar with simple single flowers, something beloved by the Japanese – “We Japanese love the single white mountain cherry best because it resembles a simple country girl, with a strong, healthy peach-like complexion – the heart and spirit of the “real” Japan.” It is also a very quick-maturing tree, flowering at its best within five years and though the floral display is spectacular it is short-lived with the petal fall as beautiful as the flowers on the trees. Government propaganda changed the emphasis in the annual “Hanami” – the cherry festival – from one of admiring the flowering to an appreciation of the petal fall and this was promoted with the interpretation that it showed how glorious it was to die and, by inference, how beautiful it was to die for one’s country and Emperor.
After his years of collecting, Ingrim turned to developing his own hybrids and introduced about 540 new varieties, of which 15 received the Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society. His garden, “The Grange”, in Benenden, Kent, had the best collection of cherry trees in the world and he, very generously, gave propagation material to individuals and nurseries who wished to grow them. He also developed a number of rhododendron cultivars and the dark rich red ‘Oporto’ is a favourite of mine.
The author, Naoko Abe, is Japanese and her biography of Collingwood Ingram won the prestigious Nihon Essayist Club Award in 2016. This book is a rewriting of that work, with a great deal of extra material, for an English audience and I have found it an outstanding book, a wonderfully interesting and informative read and one which I can recommend without the slightest hesitation.
At a visit to Ingrim’s graveside the author reflected, “Ingram had helped to change the face of spring. He had spread beauty around the world and helped to create a shared treasure – the cherry blossom – for all to enjoy.
[Cherry Ingram: The Englishman Who Saved Japan’s Blossoms, Naoko Abe, Chatto & Windus, London, 2019, Hardback, 380 pages, £18.99, ISBN: 9781784742027]