Three Friends of Winter: Plums


Japanese Hybred Plum (P.'Toka')

For many years I worked for an institution with a home office in Washington D.C. and consequently made frequent trips to the capital for the usual work related reasons, sometimes for weeks on end. In those dozens of visits only once, on my last visit, did I fortuitously arrive at the height of the city's Cherry Blossom festival.

This is the last in a series of articles about adding winter interest to your garden using an artistic concept steeped in symbolism and originating in Asia more than a millennium ago: the Three Friends of Winter. Those friends are the pine, bamboo and the subject of this article, the plum.


Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C.

There have been a number of times that Japan has presented our nation's capital with flowering cherry trees since their original gift, mostly the Yoshino Cherry (Prunus x vedoensis), back in 1912. And we even repaid the compliment in the 1980's with cuttings sent back to Japan following the desolation of their native Yoshino due to flooding. But the oldest of these trees are actually the second shipment: the first was ordered burnt at the behest of Charles Lester Marlatt, then chairman of the Federal Horticultural Board. Marlatt was somewhat a nativist at a time when American was feeling a spate of xenophobia and his efforts during this era yielded legislation that for the first time gave the Feds the power to confiscate plant material crossing not only our boarders but even the ones between states. Oddly, and perhaps because he was an expert entomologist, Marlatt was a cosmopolitan regarding one non-native species: he was responsible for the importation of ladybugs to control scale and aphids on the west coast.


Peach (P. persica 'Saturn')

Strolling along the Tidal Basin on that Sunday afternoon amidst the countless cherry blossoms was a calming experience. Most of my fellow admirers were hushed, as was I, by the beauty of the pink tinged clouds against a blue sky, the slow tumble of petals at the slightest breeze and the slowly accumulating drifts at our feet. In Japan the falling blossoms evoke what they call mono no aware, what the French call a feeling of aigre-doux and what can be translated as nostalgia for lost beauty and the transience of life.

In Chinese paintings the cherry or plum blossom is often depicted under a cowl of snow symbolizing, for the scholarly gentleman, purity and beauty under the harshest of conditions. No chance of a late spring snow in D.C. but I've experienced a few here in the Midwest: inches of wet snow melted away in a few days by a warming sun.


Japanese Plum Blossom Emblem

The cherry blossom was once an emblem of the ruling Samurai class and was revived during the time of Japan's empire building. Today Koreans celebrate their own version of cherry blossom viewing but perhaps one tinged with the knowledge that their cherry trees are remnants of a conquering Japanese army that viewed the planting of their trees as akin to the planting of their flag.


Yoshino Cherry (P. 'vedonensis')

During WWII, four cherry trees along the Tidal Basin were cut down by vandals angered at the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. At the official level, cooler heads prevailed and the trees remained, perhaps because of our own nostalgia regarding the George Washington myth about telling lies or perhaps because they were just too beautiful to destroy.


Flowering cherries and plums are members of the genus Prunus that also includes peach, apricot and almond. Prunus is a member of the very large Rosaceae family that includes most temperate fruit-bearing trees and shrubs such as Malus (apples including the crab), Pyrus (pears) and Cratagus (hawthorns).



Japanese Hybred Plum (P. 'Cavalier')

For the landscaper the choices within genus Prunus approach the astronomical and many species and cultivars are small enough to fit your typical urban footprint. Some cultivars are columnar and some are weeping. As with most fruiting trees Prunus responds well to artistic (or otherwise) pruning and manipulation. Most are good subjects for espalier and pleaching.

For the nativists, the American Plum (P. americana) has a number of cultivars and its robust rootstock is often used for grafting. The Chokecherry (P.virginiana) is a suckering tree whose fruit makes excellent jams and jellies.

In the 1830's Congress tasked the Patent Office, of all places, with the importation of economically advantageous plants. It wasn't until the end of the 19th century that the now Department of Agriculture turned from Europe and the Americas to Asia for non-native plant stock.

Sargent Cherry (P. sargentii) is a native of Japan and a great specimen plant with its upright spreading form, brown-red polished bark and bronze leaves in the fall. Apparently from Eurasia, the Cherry Plum (P. cerasifera) is of interest because it has cultivars and hybrids with purple leaves.  The Common Peach (P. persica) from China has been developed into a variety of cultivars including the hairless nectarine.


Japanese Plum (P. 'Early Golden')

What is symbolic and has meaning to people depends on the circumstances of being in a particular culture at a particular moment. Symbols can evolve over time, both within its original culture and as it migrates to others, shedding old meanings as it takes on new ones. The Three Friends of Winter and its individual components are just one example. We are fortunate in that we have the choice of adhering to any number of existing artistic concepts. Or not. We can transcend those forms and choose ideas, cherry pick if you will, from many different cultures and eras, creating hybrids that may have new meaning perhaps just to us and to us alone.

Photos courtesy of Jim Angrabright



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