Bird feeder support, squirrel roost, canopy for tiny woodland garden area: the one tree in my small garden has multiple functions. And for one week every March it stages a show which rivals the pink Magnolia in a neighbouring garden. The tree is an Amelanchier lamarckii. Its bare wood borne buds are already limbering up for the opening in a few days’ time. The elongated bud clusters have rotated to an almost vertical position, the individual flowers visible within silky pink and green flushed cocoon-like structures. Sadly this show always has a short run despite universally appreciative reviews. But the delicate bronze leaves which follow the flower show are also attractive and birds love the small black fruits which emerge during the summer before the foliage reddens for another short lived display in early autumn. Both flowers and leaves succumb to the strong winds which can occur in late March and late September weather.
As well as accomodating three bird feeders and a hanging bird bath, this versatile tree provides a perch for the small birds visiting the feeders such as Blue Tits, Great Tits and Goldfinches as well as those waiting to fly down to the feeder on the ground nearby: Blackbirds, Robins, Wood Pigeons and Dunnocks. The tits also nibble the invertebrates to be found in the tree. In August the pigeons lumber clumsily about the branches in a variety of ungainly poses, reaching for the tempting black fruits.
It must be about 16 years since I planted this tree, as a replacement for a rather untidy Euonymus which was here when I came to the house. I remember driving home from Syon Park’s garden centre with the young tree taking up most of the car and praying I would not be stopped by the police. I bought a tree stake and support from the nursery on the site of what is now Petersham Nurseries, and a few years ago was able to remove it because the strong trunk had pushed the support away, rendering it redundant.
Amelanchier lamarckii is named for Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), a French naturalist who took up botany and zoology after a military career. He is best known for his contribution to evolutionary theory, making him a precursor of Charles Darwin. I was intrigued to read that in 1790, at the height of the French Revolution, when he was keeper of the herbarium of the Royal Gardens in Paris, he changed the garden’s name to the Jardin des Plantes, which did not imply such a close association with King Louis VII. As well as my beloved tree, Lamarck’s name has been applied to other plants including species of foxglove and evening primrose. A honeybee and numerous marine organisms also bear his species epithet.
Like the plant featured in my last blog post, Sorbaria sorbifolia ‘Sem’, A. canadensis is a member of the rose family, the Rosaceae. One of the common names for A. lamarckii is Snowy Mespilus and when it is in flower it does look as though it has been sprinkled with snow. Mespilus is the botanic name for the Medlar tree, also a member of the extensive rose family but Amelanchier is a distinct genus in its own right.
When I was in Kew Gardens earlier this week I went to see if another member of the Amelanchier tribe, A. canadensis, had started to flower and found it at a similar stage to my tree. These are dense, erect, suckering shrubs which when in flower form a magical grove to the north of the Waterlily House.
Amelanchier lamarckii is an ideal tree for a small garden. It grows to between eight and twelve metres, although mine seems to be happy to remain at approximately six metres. Its small leaves almost dissolve into the flowerbed below in the autumn and apart from having to sweep them off the yard beside the house are not the nuisance some larger trees’ leaves can become in smaller gardens, for example Sycamore. I can’t wait for my specimen to reveal its spring costume and perform.