Sunday, 2 April 2017

Cherries all

The cherries in Kentle Wood are coming into bloom.
A stroll to the wood through The Grange area takes me past a couple of other cherries. At first glance the do not appear cherry-like at all, yet this is what they are.
At the start of my walk I pass a bank of Cherry Laurel, Prunus laurocerasus. With its large, leathery leaves this very familiar shrub vaguely resembles an unspotted Spotted Laurel, Aucuba japonica,  but the two species are quite unrelated.

The leathery leaves of Cherry Laurel. Northampton General Hospital.
31 March, 2017
The leaves and habit may be similar but the flowers are not.
The curious purple-brown flowers of Aucuba japonica. Flore, 9 April, 2017
So, an examination of its flowers shows that with P. laurocerasus we are looking at a true cherry (although Max Roemer placed in a separate genus as Laurocerasus officinalis). At one time the fresh leaves were used for flavouring such things as custard and 'sweetmeats' - whatever that means - but this was a distinctly risky practice as they contain significant amounts of prussic acid! It may be the presence of this poison which make the leaves unpalatable to insects and I only find an occasional leaf nibbled. The nectar is perfectly safe of course and is much sought after by bees. Introduced from Europe about 400 years ago, it is valued in shrubberies for its tough, evergreen nature but when used as hedging some meticulous gardeners clip off the unwanted branches with secateurs rather than making an unsightly cut across a leaf with shears.  Birds such as thrushes (and bullfinches - see below) much enjoy its succulent black fruits.

A honey bee enjoys the nectar
I am old-fashioned enough to often use the chopped-up leaves as a means of subduing insects, for when cut up finely they release a vapour containing hydrogen cyanide. The kernels of all cherries together with their relatives, plum, peach and almond also contain this compound but generally not enough to cause harm. (In almonds cultivated for edible nuts the cyanide is virtually non-existent, but in the nuts of ornamental almonds the prussic acid levels can be quite dangerous.) The Cherry Laurel has a close relative in Portuguese Laurel, Prunus lusitanica, also much grown again for its evergreen foliage, and I pass a hedge of this species as Kentle Wood is approached. The rather pendulous leaves are marginally less leathery and have distinctive red veins and petioles.
Portuguese Laurel. Browns Road, Daventry. 1 April, 2017
A more conventional little cherry tree stands at the top end of our allotment. This will limit the vegetables we are able to grow there, but I will forgive it. We intend to place chairs in its shade in order to relax in the heat of summer.
Chris cuts back some errant brambles beneath the cherry
Tree on our allotment plot, Daventry. 2 April, 2017
Most cherries have a distinctive annulated bark (which can be peeled off in strips) allowing them to be recognised even in the depths of winter.
The distinctive bark of Prunus avium is recognisable
even in winter. Our allotment, 2 April, 2017
 'Our' tree also has beautiful flowers which, being single, are again much appreciated by bees. It appears to be our native wild cherry, Prunus avium. Sometimes called the Gean, Housman's 'loveliest of trees' is native to this area of Northamptonshire and so is particularly welcome. John Morton, in his monumental 'Natural History of Northamptonshire' (1712), called it the Black Cherry Tree - Cerasus sylvestris fructo nigro - although I have only witnessed it bearing red fruits. Sadly the flowers are rather fleeting and within a couple of weeks its petals will begin to drop, creating a snowfall on our little plot. I believe this species is completely self-sterile, so our tree may yield no fruit although there are a couple of other specimens less than a hundred metres away.

Our allotment tree is bearing beautiful blossom.
2 April, 2017
We found a scattering of the buds on the allotment and I suspect that Bullfinches, Pyrrhula pyrrhula, have been at work. They are beautiful birds but bullfinches and cherries do not mix - at least not if you are a fruit grower!

No comments:

Post a Comment