Though it’s now about 35 years ago, I could easily take you to the exact spot on the main lawn at Ripponlea (where I was doing an apprenticeship) when I caught my first whiff of a sweet, elusive perfume on the air, this time of year. My brain went into an involuntary file search, and got caught in the neuronic equivalent of the spinning ball. The scent was familiar – comfortingly familiar – and yet not entirely so. There was layers of recognition, but others that I couldn’t place. The file that my memory kept throwing at me, and then discarding, was the file for the perfume of hyacinths.
It was way too early for hyacinths, being right in the dead of winter – that time that feels least conducive to the distillation of perfumes, which therefore adds a surprise and delight element unique to the season.
So I sniffed around and around, until I finally traced the scent back to a few stray blooms on an old Japanese flowering apricot, so deep in a shrubbery that a weak flowering was the best it could do. The flowers were a lowish grade of baby-mixed-with-candy-pink, and were so sparse as to have no visual impact. But the olfactory impact was incredible.
The Japanese flowering apricot (Prunus mume) was thus added to the list of plants for which I’ll always have a deep but unfulfilled longing.
About a decade later, we moved into a rental house on Mount Macedon in the front garden of which was a huge old weeping flowering apricot, right at the start of its long flowering time. Every time I got out of the car, my spirit revisited the lawn at Ripponlea. This weeping form is now about the only form in which we can purchase Prunus mume, and even then it’s hard to get. As someone who can barely think of a single location in which I’d choose to plant a weeping tree (as they’re total primmadonnas, and in my mind, planting is a team sport), I long for one of the tree forms of Prunus mume, which get to three or four metres tall, and about three wide, in a basic vase shape allowing for plenty of planting beneath, of flowering apricot, preferably in deep red, or double white (featured here).
Several years later again, just out of interest, I looked up an old hard copy of the British RHS’s The Plantfinder and found that there had once been at least 30 cultivars of Prunus mume. The current online version of PlantFinder UK shows eighteen named forms, of which only five are available in nurseries there. In Australia, I’m not aware of more than three – the double pink, the double pink weeper, and the double white (Prunus mume ‘Alboplena’).
But the biggest hurdle, for me, is frost. Like all apricots, grown for fruit or flowers, the tree itself is frost hardy, but the blooms are not. So every time there’s a frost, you lose all the current crop of blooms. As Prunus mume has a long flowering time, it’s likely that fresh buds will continue to open. But with the frequency of frosts around here, I’d hate the constant return to square one.
So it remains on the list of unfulfilled longings. I’m OK with that. I’ve long ago realised that longing has fabulously life-giving aspects to it. And gardening, as we all well know, is full of it.
Do you know Prunus mume? I give it 7.5 out of 10 stars. How many do you give it?