Pity the manga translator faced with cherry blossoms in an opening scene. You could fill a book trying to convey the associations, such is the evocative power of these blossoms – sakura – in full bloom. Spring time. Picnics. The faces of family and the company of friends. The jitters of a new school year. Starting out in the world of work: smart suit, sweaty palms. Peace, pleasure, purpose – tinged with an awareness that the future will all too soon be the past. There is no keeping the blossom on the tree.

But for all their feted fragility, Japan’s cherry blossoms have weathered the past century and a half remarkably well. They have found themselves pressed into the service of dramatically conflicting visions of modern Japan: saplings given to international allies, flowers adorning kamikaze flying caps and fuselages, sakura imagery adopted by the far right. They have been the focus of an annual commercial onslaught, from seasonal pink-and-white product packaging to endless tie-in campaigns. And still they retain their innocence and resonance.

This survival of the sakura’s symbolism is every bit as interesting as the story of the trees themselves, and the role of the English expert Collingwood “Cherry” Ingram in preserving them. By deftly combining the two themes, Naoko Abe, formerly a journalist for Japan’s Mainichi newspaper and now living in the UK, manages to transform Ingram’s life from horticultural footnote into historical adventure.

Collingwood ‘Cherry’ Ingram with one of his beloved trees. Photograph: Courtesy of the author

Born in 1880 and home-schooled in wealthy Westgate-on-Sea, in Kent, Ingram grew up in an English idyll. The sounding of the meal gong would be met with the fluttering of wings as a small, hungry host – a jackdaw, together with a few sparrows and blackbirds – made for the table. “Nature was the boy’s religion”, Abe writes. And you can see what she means in an accomplished boyhood sketch, full of joy and feeling, featuring four young birds chirruping heavenwards from their nest.

The flipside of his devotion to nature was a seriousness about sacrilege. He became a renowned ornithologist, only to turn his back on the subject when it appeared to lose its way: “When the editor of one of the world’s premier ornithological journals deemed it of sufficient interest to publish a paper in which the author recorded the number of times a great tit defecated every 24 hours, I came to the conclusion that it was high time I occupied my thoughts with some other aspect of nature. I chose plants.”

Ingram opted for cherry trees, setting himself up for fresh disappointment on a botanical expedition to Japan in 1926. On his first visit in the early 1900s, the country had appeared to Ingram – as it did to many other western travellers – positively Eden-like in its freedom from “smoke-begrimed cities” and the cynicism they bred. This was a land, he thought, where “man adds to, instead of detracts from, the beauty of his country”. But in its hunger for industry and status, Japan gorged itself on all things western, resulting in a “violent aesthetic indigestion”, one of whose saddest signs was the steady impoverishment of the country’s cherry blossom culture.

The sakura were being made to work diplomatic and domestic overtime: the gateway to a Japanese garden at the Japan-British Exhibition (1910) had been guarded by samurai warriors standing below two artificial cherry trees; Tokyo’s mayor sent thousands of cherry trees to New York and Washington DC in thanks for American mediation to end the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5; back at home, cherry blossoms were becoming ubiquitous in poetry, story and song, romanticising the short and selfless lives for which a nation frequently at war required its citizens to prepare. And yet the centuries of botanical expertise and connoisseurship on which all this rested was fading. Many of the old aristocratic gardens where the trees were tended had been lost to building work, tea plantations and mulberry bushes (used to feed silkworms, which in turn fed a valuable export industry). Meanwhile, with Japanese officialdom more concerned with symbolism than with nature or aesthetics, the country’s enviable variety of wild and cultivated cherry trees was losing ground – literally – to the hardy and fast-growing Somei-yoshino species.

Ingram’s discovery of this tragic trajectory, and his response to it, form the core of Abe’s sympathetic and engrossing account, which draws extensively on Ingram’s published and unpublished writings alongside interviews with surviving members of his family. We find his 1926 visit turning into a weeks-long sakura angyo – “cherry blossom pilgrimage” – the aim of which is the preservation of Japan’s cherry tree inheritance. That inheritance was never seriously imperilled, and talk of “saving” the blossoms feels a little inflated and unnecessary. But the quest is beautifully rendered: journeys on foot and horseback, through temple gardens and along mountain ridges – onwards to Tokyo’s Arakawa river, where he encounters a kindred spirit in the cherry tree expert Seisaku Funatsu, whose “loving vigilance” he credits with protecting many trees from fatal neglect.

Back in Kent, Ingram continued grafting cuttings from Japan and around the world on to the Prunus avium species. By the early 1930s, his garden was home to more than 79 varieties of cherry, including one that was seemingly extinct in its native Japan – and which he resolved to reintroduce. Such is Abe’s talent for storytelling across history and horticulture, together with the space she gives to Ingram’s own passionate, lyrical, and occasionally drily humorous turn of phrase, that here as elsewhere in the book even readers with little prior interest in gardens and gardening may find themselves becoming unexpectedly invested.

Japan-watchers will recognise the broader message for and about contemporary Japan that Abe seeks to convey. She lauds ordinary citizens as the true stewards of the country’s heritage, and, no doubt with Japanese ambivalence about multiculturalism in mind, she hints heavily at “diversity” as a virtue spanning the botanical and sociopolitical realms. Many will applaud such sentiments. Others will note that Ingram himself was little interested in politics, beyond its ramifications for nature. They will prefer to read this book in that spirit: as a portrait of great charm and sophistication, rich in its natural and historical range, guaranteeing that you won’t look at cherry blossoms the same way again.

• Christopher Harding’s Japan Story is published by Allen Lane. ‘Cherry’ Ingram is published by Chatto (£18.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

‘Cherry’ Ingram: The Englishman who saved Japan’s Blossoms

Collingwood Ingram, known as ‘Cherry’ after his defining life’s work, was born in 1880 and lived to a hundred years old, witnessing a fraught century of conflict and change.

Ingram’s interest was piqued by visits to Japan in 1902 and 1907, and further when he moved to The Grange in Benenden, Kent in 1919 and discovered two magnificent cherry trees in the neglected garden of his new family home. They reminded him of his Japanese trips and he fell in love with cherry blossoms – or sakura – dedicating much of his life to their cultivation and preservation.

On a further visit to Japan in 1926, to find new specimens and meet other experts, Ingram was shocked to see the loss of local cherry diversity – a consequence of industrialisation and modernisation driven by the need to rebuild after a devastating earthquake which destroyed vast areas of traditional housing. There was also an unsettling political undercurrent and pernicious ideology at work. A cloned cherry, the Somei-yoshino, was taking over the landscape and becoming the symbol of Japan’s expansionist ambitions.

For Ingram, the most striking absence from the Japanese cherry scene was that of Taihaku, a brilliant ‘great white’ cherry tree. A proud example of this tree grew in his English garden and he swore to return it to its native home. Multiple attempts to send Taihaku scions back to Japan ended in failure, but Ingram persisted. Over decades, he became one of the world’s leading cherry experts and shared the joy of sakura both nationally and internationally. Every spring we enjoy his legacy.

‘Cherry’ Ingram is a portrait of this little-known Englishman, a story of Britain and Japan in the twentieth century and an exploration of the delicate blossoms whose beauty is admired around the world.

In Episode 1, the author keeps seeing the name of Collingwood Ingram associated with the preservation of ancient cherries, and wants to find out more about this fascinating man.

Written and translated by Naoko Abe
Read by Hattie Morahan
Abridged by Isobel Creed and Lizzie Davies
Produced by Lizzie Davies
A Waters Company production for BBC Radio 4

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The Sakura Obsession. By Naoko Abe. Knopf; 400 pages; $27.95. Published in Britain as “‘Cherry’ Ingram: The Englishman Who Saved Japan’s Blossoms” by Chatto & Windus; £18.00.

ON MARCH 21ST a Japanese phenologist observed the pink-and-white blossoms on a cherry tree in the Yasukuni shrine in central Tokyo and formally declared the start of the cherry-blossom viewing season. There are many of this type of cherry, known as somei-yoshino, in the shrine that honours Japan’s war dead. Some are so old they are held up by wooden struts. In Japan’s militaristic mythology, the petals represent the souls of dead fighters.

Few of those currently visiting Japan would associate the delicate flowers with the cruelty of war. More likely they will swoon over nature’s ephemeral beauty and, like their hosts at this time of year, drink wildly. Yet the somei-yoshino has a dark past, which Naoko Abe explains in her lovely book, “The Sakura Obsession”. It is also the story of a quintessentially English nature lover, Collingwood “Cherry” Ingram, who was one of the first to grasp the somei-yoshino cherry tree’s dangerous seductiveness, and to attempt to tame it.

Cherry trees come in hundreds of forms. In the mountains of Japan, the lordly yama-zakura, for instance, is one of a few wild cherries. But in the cities, the vast majority are somei-yoshino, a cloned variety that flowers for a mere eight days or so in spring, evoking syrupy delight as its mist of pink blossoms billow in the wind. As Ms Abe tells it, the tree was first hybridised in the 1860s, just as Japan was emerging from a 400-year period shut off from the outside world by its rulers. After the fall of the shogunate, its outward-looking leaders needed a symbol of unity and modernisation. The somei-yoshino “fitted the bill perfectly”.

Ingram was a cherry devotee. Shortly after returning from the first world war, the middle-aged country toff decided to plant as many cherry varieties as he could find in his large garden in Kent. He imported seeds, grafted scions onto root stock, and worked feverishly to understand the naming system of Japanese cherry trees. In 1926 his quest took him to Japan, almost 25 years after he had first visited the country as a young man and been smitten by its beauty.

He was no idle enthusiast. He soon realised that an extraordinary variety of cherry trees cultivated during 2,000 years of tree-worship in Japan were in danger of being lost in favour of one, the somei-yoshino. Not only did he relate this in a blunt speech to the titans of Japanese industry at Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel. He also promised to help Japan restore more variety by sending stock back from his garden.

Two tensions animate this book: the difficulty of sending fragile scions around the world and successfully grafting them; and the wrenching historical context. As Ingram battled to safeguard Japan’s cherry legacy, the country was succumbing to belligerent nationalism. Many loathed the idea of relying on a Westerner to recover its botanical heritage. Moreover, the somei-yoshino cult was just getting into its swing. Within 20 years, kamikaze pilots would fly to their doom with cherry blossoms painted on their fuselages. After death, they were promised, they would be reborn as blossoms at Yasukuni.

Be warned. It is hard to view the blossoms of the somei-yoshino with such tender joy after reading Ms Abe’s book. On the other hand, visitors to Japan will yearn to see more of the yama-zakura, great-white cherries and other varieties that Ingram so devotedly helped to rescue.

These days Japanese people increasingly bemoan the tide of foreigners, especially from China, who join their hanami, or cherry-blossom viewing parties. Perhaps commentaries like Ms Abe’s will inspire them to cultivate other cherry trees, which flower earlier or later, and delight in their variety, as their ancestors did centuries ago.

This article appeared in the Books and arts section of the print edition under the headline “The Englishman who helped safeguard Japan’s cherry trees”

Navelwort ‘Cherry Ingram’

Category:

Perennials

Water Requirements:

Requires consistently moist soil; do not let dry out between waterings

Sun Exposure:

Light Shade

Partial to Full Shade

Foliage:

Evergreen

Smooth

Textured

Foliage Color:

Chartreuse/Yellow

Height:

6-12 in. (15-30 cm)

Spacing:

12-15 in. (30-38 cm)

Hardiness:

USDA Zone 6a: to -23.3 °C (-10 °F)

USDA Zone 6b: to -20.5 °C (-5 °F)

USDA Zone 7a: to -17.7 °C (0 °F)

USDA Zone 7b: to -14.9 °C (5 °F)

USDA Zone 8a: to -12.2 °C (10 °F)

USDA Zone 8b: to -9.4 °C (15 °F)

USDA Zone 9a: to -6.6 °C (20 °F)

USDA Zone 9b: to -3.8 °C (25 °F)

Where to Grow:

Unknown – Tell us

Danger:

Unknown – Tell us

Bloom Color:

Dark Blue

Bloom Characteristics:

Unknown – Tell us

Bloom Size:

Unknown – Tell us

Bloom Time:

Mid Spring

Late Spring/Early Summer

Other details:

Unknown – Tell us

Soil pH requirements:

6.6 to 7.5 (neutral)

7.6 to 7.8 (mildly alkaline)

Patent Information:

Unknown – Tell us

Propagation Methods:

By dividing the rootball

Seed Collecting:

N/A: plant does not set seed, flowers are sterile, or plants will not come true from seed

Regional

This plant has been said to grow in the following regions:

Sorrento, British Columbia

San Francisco, California

Seattle, Washington

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