‘Tis spring, we sing, gazing out our offices at the almond trees blooming down below ‘Sing tra la la and put the overcoats away.’
Or words to that effect.
Except spring is not coming till it’s good and ready. Those blooming almonds are the great deceivers of late winter, as are those flowering cherries, flowering peaches, and flowering plums. All of the flowering prunus look stunning, flowering well before fruiting varieties. They’re hardy even in heavy frosts; survive heat waves and drought once established, and grow in cold to temperate or even subtropical areas.
But never let those blossoms trick you into thinking it’s warm outside, or that they’ll do their fruitful duty and give you summer’s bounty. They’re one-trick wonders: stunning blooms now, then boring for the rest of the year. If they do fruit at all, it won’t be much, and rarely any good.
On the other hand, this is the time we can all do with a bit of lavish flowering. Flowering fruit trees are most often grown as street or park plantings, but they are also the perfect size for a small garden, or even a largish patio, with a potted tree, or even a row of them, to cheer you in cold weather. And they give LOTS, with flowers ranging from pure white to shell pink, dark pink, pinkish red or deep red, in single blooms like a million butterflies, or double or semi-double flowers.
My favourite flowering fruit tree is possibly Prunus cerasifera 'Nigra', the flowering plum, with its dark red leaves and spectacular deep pink flowers. They’re common in the older suburbs of Canberra, sometimes beautifully alternated with trees with green leaves and white or lighter pink flowers. You can buy fruiting red leafed plums too (still beautiful), though the occasional ornamental plum may give you a very few fruits, which tidy gardeners dislike as they can fall and squish unexpectedly and make a mess. Fruit is best when you are expecting it.
Prunus 'Elvins' is even more stunning, with more flowers than you’d ever think could fit on a branch, beginning white then deepening to a rich pink. They are true spring bloomers though, not winter deceivers.
The flowering almond (Prunus triloba) is also sometimes called the double flowering plum - not that it really matters if you aren’t going to get fruit. It’s a gorgeous pale pink bloomer with double petals, and seems to laugh at frosts.
There’s also dwarf flowering almond, Prunus glandulosa 'Rosea Plena', with double pink blooms, though that name is a bit of a deceiver too, as they grow to at least 3 metres high, much the same as other prunus, or even up to five metres high or more, unless you are extremely strict with your pruning. Prunus glandulosa 'Alba Plena' has massed double white flowers; Prunus glandulosa 'Alba' is white with single blooms,
The flowering prunus don’t need much care. Prune them to the shape you want, or just let them grow. If you’re growing them in pots you can keep them small and neatly rounded, which makes them look reasonably ornamental even when not flowering. But a bit of pruning - and better feeding and watering - will make all prunus bloom more enthusiastically, even though they do well with benign neglect. They’re more likely to suffer from over-eager mowers or whipper snippers damaging their trunk, encouraging rots.
And if you do want almonds? The fruiting almond is a ‘prunus’ too, Prunus dulcis, but it’s far less cold hardy, and blooms later. They’re also the ones we grow here, the reliable self-fertile kind that don’t need a pollinator.
I admire massed tree plantings of flowering trees, but when I see blooms on fruit trees, I want something good to eat from them a few months later. But I am very glad indeed that others have planted them, for me to admire when I mooch around Canberra.
This week I am:
- Buying more protea bushes, firstly because there are new stunning and even hardier varieties, but also because proteas are the easiest vase fillers of winter. Bung three in a container and you have a flower arrangement. Our protea has survived 25 years with no attention whatsoever in drought, flood, frost and heat wave, apart from me hauling off the flowers now and then. I reckon our garden needs some more.
- Eating red mignonette winter lettuces. In summer crisp lettuce is a delight. In winter that soft leaf seems sweet and perfect.
- Trying to empty the fridge of frozen stewed plums, peaches and quinces, for crumbles, pies and ‘fluffies’ which is a sponge cake topping baked over a dish of stewed fruit, served hot with cream and ice-cream, or possibly cold for breakfast if you can snavel the leftovers before anyone else gets them.
- Adding berries frozen whole in summer - blueberries, raspberries or even small chunks of frozen apricot - to pikelet batter. Delicious.
- Bunging those proteas in vases.
- Feeling smug at planting so much parsley last spring. It is extremely welcome now.