Friday, 5 September 2014

thorn trees past and present

It is a great year for berries and fruit.  In the hedges the hawthorns are thick with deep red haws, swollen to twice their usual size, while at the top of the sloping bed in the back garden Crataegus laciniata, their exotic relative, has produced a bumper crop of marble-sized, apricot coloured fruit. Also known as Crataegus orientalis (perhaps more correctly, but I planted it under the former name), the Oriental Thorn comes originally from the Eastern Mediterranean, the Caucasus. Crimea and western Iran.

It is a lovely little tree.  It will only ever get to twenty feet or so, and although tolerant of poor soils as thorns seem to be, is very slow in such conditions.  Mine, on acid gravelly sand and with around twenty-one inches of annual rainfall, is not yet half way there after a dozen years.  It has kept an almost spherical head with no formative pruning on my part, like a child's drawing of a perfect lollipop tree.  The leaves are grey-green and deeply cut, like an exaggerated version of a normal hawthorn leaf.  The white blossom in spring is nothing remarkable, but the fruits are something else.

From a distance they give the impression of being apricot coloured.  Closer inspections reveals that this is the result of a red flush on a yellow ground, which gives them a depth and subtlety.  If Rothko had set out to design a hawthorn berry he might have come up with something like the fruit of the Oriental Thorn.  They have distinctly ribbed sides, like tiny muscular apples, while the clearly visible remnants of the flower at the base of each fruit give them the air of miniature medlars. Seen close up they are delightful, and this year's crop is so heavy that the tree sparkles with dots of colour when seen from across the garden.

When I first planted up the back garden I had a Crataegus persimilis 'Prunifolia' as well, further down the slope.  This has red fruit, which are well enough but not honestly as interesting as those of C. lacininiata, plus fiery autumn leaf colour which is supposed to be the best of any thorn, turning rich orange and crimson.  Mine did, but never grew very much, and in spite of occasional watering it quietly gave up and died one year.  It was on a particularly nasty band of soil, to judge from the way the hedge behind it always grew lower at that point than anywhere else down the entire slope.  I was sorry at the time, less so when I saw quite how much space the one in the plant centre car park took up, and how relatively dull it was for the fifty odd weeks of the year when it wasn't dressed in its autumn colours.

I had a double scarlet thorn as well at one time, bought after admiring them for several years running at the Chelsea Flower Show.  It grew extremely quickly, despite being planted on pure sand and almost under the canopy of a large ash tree.  As the years passed my tastes changed, and I began to think that double scarlet thorn was not the best thing to have in my garden.  At this point, and before I had started agonising about what to do about a tree I had fallen out of love with, which was planted in a prominent position close to the front door, it solved the question for me by dying very suddenly.  One week in spring it looked fine, by the next week the leaves had turned dull and downcast, and soon clung brown and dust-dry to the branches, with no sign of regrowth.  I could never work out what killed it, and all the other woody plants in that bed have remained in robust health to the present day.  I wondered if it was some variant of graft failure.  Whatever it was, the roots remained very solid and it was an awful job to dig the stump out.

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