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Country Gentleman: Living and learning with mountain cherry trees

Fresh spring leaves color the Afan Woodland in this photo provided by the C.W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust.

The cherry blossom season is over in Tokyo, but I woke this morning here in Kurohime to a light dusting of snow and a chilly wind from the north. Our cat decided that snuggling into bed with this warm old bearded bear was preferable to her cushion in the living room. Still, our cherry trees will be in full bloom in a week or so and we'll have our own little "hanami" party, maybe a couple of them. In snow country the cherry trees blossom at the same time as the magnolias, with their big creamy white blossoms. Many woodland flowers will show themselves, along with wild garlic and other edible woodland treats.

When I first started working with our woods (the Afan Woodland Trust in Shinanomachi, Shinshu, Nagano) we did a lot of trimming out of crowded trees, but at the same time we also planted saplings, including a lot of mountain cherry trees. These are more suited to wild woods than the many more gorgeous cultivars so well loved in the cities. The mountain cherry, native to Japan, Korea and China, produces clusters of two to five blossoms on short stalks, white to pink in color, five petals per flower, appearing at the same time as tiny new pale green leaves.

About 25 years ago we planted a double row of mountain cherries around two newly excavated ponds. I decided to dig the ponds because at snow-melt the land here would get boggy, with small shallow puddles of water all over. Thousands of tadpoles and other water creatures would appear in those puddles, but they never survived, because the puddles would all dry up and the mud would crack in the sun. Below the ground however, it was still soggy, for there had been various disturbances over history, attempts to make fields and so on, and the ground water was not moving. With our construction, ground water flowed and the roots of the trees we planted could be healthy. The ponds would attract all kinds of water-life; frogs, newts, ducks, herons and so on. When the trees grew and blossomed, I imagined my older self, sitting by a pond with a little sake, enjoying the sight of blossoms and the snowy peaks beyond. I could even fancy myself as a cultured, literary fellow, listening for the "plop" of a frog jumping into the water. Kobayashi Issa, (1763-1823) our most famous poet, wrote a haiku on the topic. Issa was born just a couple of kilometers from my present house. The haiku goes like this:

"Furu ike ya mazu o-saki e tobu kawazu" (Old pond / Excuse me for going first / Frog jumps)

It is not so well known as the haiku by Matsuo Basho, but I like it!

More than 30 years have passed and now that spot by the pond in our woods is one of our "hanami" places.

Another is just outside our horse lodge. The horse lodge was built three years ago, but around the time we were planting those mountain cherry trees in the woods, I had acquired an extra plot of land where for some years we raised pigs and honeybees. Here I planted False Acacia, (since then all cut down) chestnut and horse chestnut trees together with weeping cherry trees. These saplings came from a very old weeping cherry (Prunus pendulata -- shidare zakura) that grew in a little park less than a kilometer from my house. The old tree was dying so with the permission of the town, I called in a tree doctor, Yamamoto Kouji, to try to save it. In cutting out dead wood and counting tree rings we discovered that the tree was over 500 years old. It was decided that one way to save the DNA of this great old tree would be to raise its offspring from the little black cherries or shoots.

A cluster of these weeping cherries now blooms beside our horse lodge. Last winter for the first time our two 'dosanko' horses overwintered in the snow, which they loved. Chacha Maru and Yuki Maru are prodigious gormandizers. They had already eaten anything and everything that was green and edible, and of course they were regularly fed, but once snow came, humans got busy, and for a couple of hours they were left to their own means.

These voracious herbivores soon discovered the taste and texture of young cherry tree bark. By the time this demeanor was found out two cherry trees had been almost totally ringed at horse-head height and will probably die. A remaining five trees were saved and protected with mesh. Now we'll have to fence off our cherry trees as well as our little vegetable patch and picnic place. In the country you live and learn, and you'd best be ready with a laugh! ("Country Gentleman" is a regular column by author and conservationist C.W. Nicol)

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