May 01, 2016


In Japan, hanami refers to the ceremony of cherry blossom viewing. I like the pink and white ornamental cherry trees that decorate London's streets, but it's the glorious, highly perfumed bird cherries (Prunus padus) on Tooting Common that make me want to drop everything and celebrate their brief but extraordinary spring glory. Between the blackthorn and the hawthorn they put out their dangling cream racemes, creating caves of flowers and filling the air around them with fragrance.

As its name suggests, the small, black, astringent berries that the flowers turn into will provide food for birds later in the year, like blackbirds and thrushes, as well as for small mammals like wood mice. Several types of caterpillars eat the leaves, for instance those of the brimstone butterfly, and the flowers are an excellent source of nectar and pollen for bees and other pollinating insects.

But it's the scent that I find so staggering: heavy, glorious, utterly distinctive. Some say it smells of almonds, but I can't detect that note in their fragrance when I pass; I can say, though, that the bird cherries on the Common smell to me perfectly of spring.