'Cherry' Ingram: A synopsis
"I have never seen man and nature in such close accord or a land of such artistic taste. Nature is not always an artist; at times she is too lavish with her colours, at others she is arrogant or she may be overproud. It is usually man that defaces her work, that scars her smiling features. Yet, untrue as it may sound to the uninitiated, here (in Japan) man adds to, instead of detracts from, the beauty of his country." -- Collingwood Ingram diary entry, 1902.
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Nature was Collingwood Ingram's teacher. Born in London in October 1880 at the apogee of Queen Victoria's reign, Ingram was the third son of William and Mary Ingram. His grandfather, Herbert Ingram, was the wealthy founder of the Illustrated London News.
A frail child, Ingram was kept out of school and never attended a class in his life. Rather, the young boy grew up in Westgate-on-Sea, an English seaside town in Kent where his family had a second home, and educated himself in nearby marshes and woods observing birds and plants. By his teens, he was an expert naturalist, with a particular penchant for ornithology.
Ingram arrived in Japan for the first time in 1902 when he was 21, after a trip to see relatives in Australia, and fell in love with the country and its culture. Japan had opened its doors to the West in the mid-19th century and at the time of his visit, there was a vigorous ‘Japonism’ movement in Europe in which some passionate collectors were buying Japanese wood prints, netsuke and porcelain.
After returning to England, he met his future wife, Florence, and persuaded her to travel 6,000 miles by ship to Japan for their honeymoon in 1907.
In World War I, Ingram was sent to Northern France as a compass adjuster from December 1916 until the end of 1918, aiding Allied pilots flying across German trenches. （For more on Ingram's WW1 war diaries, read "Wings Over the Western Front" edited by Ernest Pollard and Hazel Strouts, Day Books.）
Ingram moved with Florence and 4 children to a new house in Benenden, Kent, in 1919. Enchanted by two enormous cherry trees on the grounds, Ingram decided to create a garden full of different cherry varieties. Within six years, ornithology took a back seat to sakura, and Ingram had accumulated a collection of more than 100 varieties of the tree in his sprawling garden.
The cherry tree at the Grange in 1919 which ignited Ingram's cherry fever
-----photo provided by the Ingram family
On a chilly day in March 1926, a succession of spotless chauffeur-driven limousines brought Japan's business leaders to a meeting hall in central Tokyo for the annual gathering of the nation's most prestigious cherry blossom society. They arrived expecting a convivial conversations and to pay their respects to Prince Takatsukasa, the society's honorary chairman. What they saw and heard was astonishing -- a thin, blue-eyed, middle-aged Englishman reprimanding Japan's best and brightest for what he regarded as a catastrophic and avoidable national failure. "Your people have produced an amazing number of varieties (of cherry blossoms)," the 45-year-old Ingram told his audience of about 200 distinguished, mostly older, men. "But many are in serious danger of extinction. In another 50 years you will have permanently lost them."
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Ingram returned to Japan on a ‘cherry hunting’ trip in 1926 with the help of Japanese Prince Takatsukasa, who planned his itinerary and set up high-level appointments.
In 1926, Japan was already the world's ninth-largest economy and its third-largest naval power. But Tokyo and Yokohama were still recovering from the devastating Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, and Japan's rapid industrialization had decimated rare varieties of traditional cherry blossoms and other plants. The only way to preserve them, Ingram decided, was to send cuttings to England.
Ingram travelled to Kyoto, the ancient capital, as well as to Nara, Nikko and Sendai. He ventured deep into the mountains around Mount Fuji and discovered scores of beautiful and largely unknown varieties. He asked local people to send cuttings of the plants to England. Later that year, carefully packed crates arrived at his Benenden home, mostly alive and ready for grafting.
Ingram's speech to business leaders and royalty gave a stark warning of the threat to the cherry blossom, but few experts shared his concern. One who did was an elderly cherry expert in Tokyo, Seisaku Funatsu, who had devoted his life to the plant and worried that unless something was done, Japan would end up with only one or two varieties of cherry, like the ubiquitous yoshino cherry under which millions of Japanese held parties during traditional "hanami" (flower-viewing) parties every April.
A cherry avenue in Tokyo in 1926 taken by C.Ingram
----photo provided by the Ingram family
Seisaku Funatsu unrolled a long narrow silk scroll that bore a vivid painting of a cherry plant with immense white blossoms. "This is the cherry that my great grandfather planted more than 130 years ago," the eminent sakura keeper told Ingram through an interpreter. "We used to see it near Kyoto, but it seems to have gone extinct. I can't find it anywhere." Ingram listened thoughtfully. This looks exactly like the Taihaku that I have in my garden in Kent, he said. "The old gentleman was clearly incredulous, but his good manners forbade any open expression of doubt," Ingram wrote later. Funatsu gave a deep and courteous bow. "Piqued by his obvious doubt, I resolved to convince him," Ingram wrote.
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Independently wealthy and fervent about flowers, Ingram spent much of the late 1920s and early 1930s in his garden, devoting himself to growing more than 120 cherry blossom varieties. Many were the result of his cherry hunting trip to Japan , others were imported from the U.S. Ingram also created his own varieties by hybridizing different species. Over time, his collection became famous throughout south-east England and people started to call him by the monicker ‘Cherry' Ingram.
Ingram wrote many articles on cherry blossoms for horticultural magazines and newspapers, including the family–owned 'Illustrated London News’. He invited nursery men and friends to his garden and gave cuttings to them, including to his neighbour in Kent, Vita Sackville-West, the novelist and garden designer. Gradually, his cherries started spreading around Britain.
Ingram never forgot the vow he had made to the sakura keeper, Seisaku Funatsu, who had lamented the loss of "the most beautiful sakura in Japan," the Tai haku. It was a pure white single flower with a diameter of about 6 centimeters. "For quality and size, it stands supreme," Ingram wrote. "Undoubtedly the chief charm of the Tai haku lies in the striking contrast between its huge snow-white blossoms and the rich copper-red colour of its young foliage."
Ingram had raised a Tai haku plant in his garden, a graft from a dying tree he had found in a Sussex garden. He set about trying to return the variety in collaboration with a sakura keeper in Kyoto. It took them five years of frustrating trial and error to get a live plant to Japan. In 1932, a living cutting of Ingram’s most-beloved flower reached Japan buried in a potato after a journey across Europe and Asia, mostly aboard the trans-Siberian express.
Ingram's happiness at repatriating the plant was short-lived. Funatsu, his fellow cherry enthusiast, died before Ingram could realise the sakura keeper's dream of seeing the Tai haku growing again in Japanese soil.
Ingram continued propagating cherries in the late 1930s even as the Nazis took over in Germany and war loomed in Europe. The Battle of Britain was fought over Kent in the summer of 1940, and a German fighter plane crashed into Ingram’s front gate, damaging some cherry trees. In 1941, Ingram was appointed head of the Benenden Home Guard, a "Dad's Army" unit that prepared for the German invasion of England. Later in the war, German V1 and V2 guided missiles fell on Benenden near Ingram's residence, killing five.
Seisaku Funatsu in 1926 taken by C. Ingram
-----photo provided by the Ingram Family)
"Why not fall gracefully for the country
Like the cherry petals?"
-- Lines from 'Doki no Sakura,' one of Japan's most popular songs in the 1930s and 1940s, taught in schools and sung by the military.
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The Japanese have lived with cherry blossoms for more than a thousand years. In ancient times, people worshipped the tree, believing it protected their rice fields. Every village had a unique cherry. And the timing of their bloom gave the people signs as to when to plant rice, part of their staple diet.
The cherry blossom became the country’s symbol when Kyoto became the capital of Japan in 794 as the nation tried to forge its own identity away from Chinese influence. Thousands of poems were written about cherry blossoms:
Would that I could die under the cherry blossoms in Spring
Around the time of the April full moon
--Saigyo, Buddhist priest (AD 1118-1190)
A majority of the more than 400 cherry blossom varieties that exist today were created or existed during the Edo period (1603-1868), when Japan was isolated from the rest of the world. Each of the 300 samurai lords, or Daimyo, who ruled the provinces had a house in Edo, present-day Tokyo, and they competed with each other to create the most beautiful and unique cherry blossom varieties in their gardens.
The Edo era ended in the mid-19th century when Japan was forced to open its doors to the outside world under pressure from the West. Civil wars erupted and the Daimyo lords abandoned their Edo homes. Many varieties of cherries disappeared quickly and were lost forever.
The newly formed Meiji government launched a rapid modernization of the country and started planting a newly cloned cherry called ‘yoshino' as a symbol of the ‘New Japan’. Yoshino cherries were planted everywhere and on virtually any occasion to commemorate every step the country took to become a strong and prosperous nation, such as victory in the war with Russia in 1905.
As the country plunged into the Pacific War in the 1930s, the cherry blossom became an emblem of ‘Imperial Japan’. Cherry blossoms featured in all aspects of society -- songs, books, poems, plays and militaristic rituals. When the kamikaze pilots flew off to their death in the war's waning days, they painted sakura emblems on their planes and waved cherry blossom branches in the air.
Women gardeners in Nikko, Japan in 1926 taken by C. Ingram
-----photo provided by the Ingram family
"The Japanese were brutes. We were appalled at the state of the (Allied prisoner) patients, emaciated, desperately ill and suffering from starvation." Daphne Ingram (nee van Wart), a military nurse imprisoned by the Japanese in Hong Kong 1941-45.
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The war in the Pacific was dominated by the "Cherry ideology" in Japan, and Ingram's future daughter-in-law became a victim. Daphne, a nurse stationed in Hong Kong, became a prisoner of war in December 1941. She returned to England after Japan’s surrender in August 1945 and married Ingram’s third son, Alastair. Her feelings about the Japanese were so strong that she refused to talk about her wartime experiences, even to her children. Daphne's ordeal as a POW became public for the first time when, aged 93, she was interviewed by an English journalist for a book about nurses' wartime experiences.
Back in Ingram's Benenden garden, his precious cherries largely survived the war. And from Auckland to Washington, more than 100 varieties, including the Tai haku, thrived and became part of the natural scenery. "The Tai haku has now encircled the world," Ingram wrote in 1948. "Today it is growing in France, America, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, while I have also succeeded in restoring this superb variety to its native land." In the United States, some of the varieties bred by Ingram were planted alongside the Potomac River in Washington, home to the U.S.'s most-acclaimed cherry blossom festival.
Despite Ingram's achievements, it was a different story in Japan. While millions of cherry trees were cut down for fuel during and immediately after the war, the omnipresent yoshino cherry eventually began to dominate the war-ravaged Japanese landscape. Ingram's pre-war pleas for diversity and variety fell on deaf ears as Japan turned all its energies to rebuilding its battered infrastructure.
The cherry orchard at the Grange in mid-1940s
-----photo provided by the Ingram family
"I sincerely hope that the sakura trees being sent from Japan will be carefully tended and raised, and that some day these cherry blossoms will give pleasure and consolation to all those who see them, including those bereaved families of the war dead." Letter from Masatoshi Asari, a Hokkaido sakura keeper, to John Bond, Windsor Great Park keeper of the gardens. 1993. (Windsor Great Park archives)
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Seisaku Funatsu, Ingram's fellow Tai haku enthusiast, was so concerned about the disappearance of rare cherry blossom varieties before he died in 1929, he secretly had sent cuttings from his collection to a distant relative in a part of rural Saitama prefecture.
The relative grafted the cherries, and they were moved clandestinely from one sakura keeper to another during the war. Each risked his life as there was tremendous pressure from the military to burn the trees for fuel and to convert the land to grow food. Eventually, these cherries were preserved at a handful of government research sites.
In post-war England, meanwhile, Ingram’s 1948 book, "Ornamental Cherries", ignited a cherry boom and millions of trees were planted in towns, villages and gardens, including Windsor Great Park and the Queen Mother’s lodge.
Yet even as the Western world embraced Japanese culture, technology and goods in the 1960s and 1970s -- from Nissan cars and Panasonic VCRs to the Sony Walkman -- prisoner-of-war issues remained a thorny diplomatic problem between the UK and Japan, even as late as the 1990s. In 1993, Masatoshi Asari, a sakura keeper in Hokkaido, who had been sympathetic towards the plight of British POWs in Japan's northernmost island, sent a gift of 58 new varieties of his own creation to Windsor Great Park as a gesture of goodwill to the victims and their families.
In March 2000, after a gardener at Windsor Great Park propagated these cherries, many were planted in Ingram's former residence in Benenden, the "birthplace" of Japanese cherries in the U.K. Ingram's cherry blossom story had come full circle, and a new generation of cherries, originally created by Asari, started to grow at the Grange. "New relationships can never be born unless one faces up to the past properly," Asari said. The cherries will always thrive at their native home as "requiem cherries" for all the war dead and in memory of 'Cherry' Ingram.
The 'reconciliation cherries' sent from Asari at the Windsor Great park
----photo taken by Naoko Abe
The Tai haku cherry blossom is one of the most popular and admired varieties throughout the world. Ingram's original tree still stands in his former residence in Benenden and blossoms every year. It is more than 90 years old.
In February 2015, Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, planted a Tai haku tree in a garden next to the British Embassy in Tokyo as a symbol of the nations' amity.
British ambassador to Japan, Tim Hitchens, explained the event's significance: "Most sakura in Japan live about 60 years. The Tai haku, or great white, lives for 100 years. Thanks to (Ingram's) act of U.K.-Japanese friendship,Tai haku trees can be seen in Japan once again.
"Collingwood Ingram died in 1981, aged 100, his long-term affection for all things Japanese intact."
----photo provided by the Ingram family