HortWeek feature: Wonderful trees that have yet to achieve rock star status


Our Sales Director Matthew Thomas recently chatted to Bob Askew of HortWeek about supporting the underdog varieties! Read the article here;

[I do not think that just because something is uber-popular it lacks merit. I am a plant snob, but also strongly commercial in outlook. I do worry, however, that as an industry we are prone to overinvesting in the tried-and-tested cultivars, and consumers risk losing breadth of choice as a result. Never is this more true than with ornamental trees.

I spoke with Frank P Matthews sales director Matthew Thomas about the cultivars that he believes are absolute must-haves and should be more towards the front of plant buyers’ minds when stocking tree areas. Not the predictable and overutilised Malus ‘Evereste’ Award of Garden Merit (AGM) and Prunus ‘Sekiyama’ (syn. ‘Kanzan’) AGM. Rather, trees that are utterly brilliant but, for some undecipherable reason, have not yet become bestsellers.

Fabulous hawthorns

Regarding hawthorns, Thomas was strongly of the view that Crataegus × lavalleei ‘Carrierei’ AGM, Crataegus succulenta ‘Jubilee’ and Crataegus schraderiana AGM are well worth another look, and I wholeheartedly agree. In fact, it is fair to say that the overreliance of the trade on the double-flowered one-hit-wonder that is Crataegus × media ‘Paul’s Scarlet’ AGM has led us to lose sight of just how fabulous hawthorns can be for nature and for gardeners.

Thomas said he loves how Crataegus × lavalleei ‘Carrierei’ AGM is robust and glossy, “with such rich, dark-green leaves and how the shiny orange-red haws really catch the autumn sun”. Those handsome leaves come from the Crataegus mexicana seed-parent of this hybrid species. The pollen parent, long supposed to be Crataegus crus-galli, may in fact be another American native, Crataegus calpodendron. Whatever the parentage, the outcome is a seriously attractive three-plus season tree with clouds of spring blossom, glossy summer foliage, showy autumn fruits and good autumn colour.

Crataegus succulenta ‘Jubilee’ is a more recent selection of another American species and, in Thomas’s opinion, is “a good hardy tree, tough enough for almost any location. As with ‘Carrierei’, the bunches of large red haws are fantastic.” The suggestion from the USA is that the tree is also significantly resistant to fireblight, Erwinia amylovora. In my view, this is a cracking alternative to the wonderful Crataegus persimilis ‘Prunifolia’ AGM.

Third in the “coulda-woulda-shoulda” hawthorn stakes is the sublime Crataegus schraderiana. Thomas said he rates this highly for the “deeply cut leaves and very dark-red haws, which make this a very elegant little hawthorn. Lots of lovely white blossom too.” Fine words for a very fine species, which for too long has been unfairly ignored in favour of the coral-orange fruited Crataegus orientalis AGM.

Crab apples

Opinions began to diverge ever so slightly when we spoke about crab apples, but as Frank P Matthews holds what is very likely to be certified as the next Plant Heritage National Collection of Malus, I knew to shut up and listen.

Thomas highlighted Malus ‘Candymint’ as more deserving of the spotlight, and on this one we are in full accord. “This little tree becomes totally covered with blossom in April/May — a real eye-catcher,” he said. “Dainty and small with horizontal branches, it’s great for any garden.” I’m not sure what more needs to be said, but just in case you are not yet 100% convinced, it is worth noting that it is remarkably healthy, arising from Malus sargentii stock, and has purple-flushed emergent foliage. Oh, and the flowers are some of the prettiest in the genus.

I was somewhat surprised to hear Matthew suggest that Malus ‘Indian Magic’ AGM has still not hit its full sales potential. This fabulous introduction from crab apple master Robert Simpson’s nursery in Vincennes, Indiana, has been a favourite of mine for some years. The floral display among the purple-emergent foliage is a zinger and the unusual ellipsoid autumn fruits that follow change colour from red to orange with the onset of cold weather. “The emerging flower buds are such a seductive deep red,” said Thomas. “It’s one of the best for blossom.” The cultivar was named for a racehorse owned by Simpson.

Malus ‘Rosehip’ was Thomas’s third choice of overlooked crab apple cultivars. “The large, shiny red crabs with protruding calyx make this a delightful and unusual variety,” he said. “I like eating the fruit fresh off the tree. Nice and sharp. Makes a good juice too.” Having grown this cultivar myself, I can confirm that the fruits are indeed large and that the cultivar produces rather a lot of them, so if you fancy making a few pounds of crab apple jelly, this might just be the perfect choice. In fact, I recall it taking two hands and some determination to carry the fruit-laden 12L tree that was destined to be my budwood donor to the car.

Flowering cherries

When it comes to flowering cherries, I like to think I know a thing or two. Despite this, Thomas threw me a curve ball with his first candidate, Prunus ‘Beni-yutaka’. Surely, I countered, this brilliant Masatoshi Asari introduction already has a huge following. Apparently not, at least not in comparison with the real big hitters such as Prunus ‘Amanogawa’ AGM, Prunus ‘Kiku-shidare-zakura’ and Prunus ‘Sekiyama’ AGM.

“This is the best early-flowering cherry and the upright shape is very tidy,” said Thomas. “The best feature, though, is the rich autumn colour of the leaves.” I would go further and say that this is one of the finest flowering cherry introductions of the past century. If you are a garden centre buyer and do not yet stock this, or a landscaper who does not yet offer this to your clients, you are letting your customers down massively.

Second up in Thomas’s list of flowering cherry cultivars that deserve greater prominence is Prunus ‘Ukon’ AGM. I will admit that green-flowered cherries have thus far failed to completely hook me though, given my cherry obsession, I suspect it is only a matter of time. Thomas’s view that “the unusual soft primrose-yellow/lime-green flowers are understated and utterly alluring” has got me thinking that I perhaps need to revisit this subject soon. He rates it as “one of the more classy flowering cherries”. Somewhat surprisingly, given the American-sounding name — albeit spelt differently — this Japanese cultivar dates back to at least 1780, when it was mentioned in a guide to Kyoto.

Thomas’s third candidate, Prunus ‘Horinji’, is an absolute doozie of a tree. Arising a few hundred years ago at the shrine of the same name in the hills of Arashi-yama, Kyoto, likely as a wild-selected tree gifted to the monks. Until now mostly ignored by UK garden centre buyers and gardeners, and becoming rare, but still offered by Frank P Matthews and making a perfect upright tree for modestly sized gardens. Thomas described it as “a small tree with showy pinky-white, semi-double flowers filling its branches”, adding: “It really packs a punch.” The pedicels, calyx and sepals are purplish-red and contrast gorgeously with the delicately shaded petals.

Finally, the conversation turned to mountain ash, and for starters Thomas picked out Sorbus ‘Sunshine’ as deserving far more credit. “This is an improvement on the ever-popular Joseph Rock,” he said. “It’s very tidy and upright with masses of clusters of yellow berries.” Given the lingering suggestion that the seed parent has some susceptibility to fireblight, garden centre buyers and gardeners have an added incentive to make the switch. Plantsman John Ravenscroft, Victoria Medal of Honour, also speaks very highly of this cultivar, and if it gets John’s seal of approval, I am all in. The autumn colour is off the scale.

Amazing bills

Thomas suggested that Sorbus commixta ‘Ravensbill’ is another tree worthy of more praise and greater sales: “I have one of these in my garden and the dark-black ‘bills’ are amazing. It is not a big tree, so a good rowan for modern gardens.” Praise indeed. The long purple-black dormant buds of the tree are an outstanding feature in the winter garden. With modest size, spring flowers for pollinators and autumn fruits for the birds, it definitely seems to tick a lot of boxes for gardeners.

The last candidate discussed was the gorgeous Sorbus ‘Pink Charm’. “The hanging bunches of bright-pink berries on this little tree almost look like sweets,” said Thomas. “They always catch the eye. Birds love them too.” Selected by talented plantsman Chris Lane from seedlings he raised from fruit collected at Ness Botanic Garden and the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens. Brilliantly named for the vivid pink fruits by the outstanding team at Frank P Matthews.

I adore this tree, which was named and sold as a selection of Sorbus vilmorinii, an apomictic species that comes perfectly true from seed. The finely pinnate foliage and stunning autumn colour of ‘Pink Charm’ made this an easy conclusion to reach before Sorbus guru Hugh McAllister determined that Sorbus vilmorinii was an apomict. That this petite tree sells itself in habit, fruit and leaf in garden centres makes it an absolute gift to retailers. Get stuck in.

Matthew Thomas very kindly limited his suggestions to suit the length of this article, though he admitted it could have been significantly longer. My own list would have been ridiculously long and would certainly have included some of the above as well as other diamonds such as Malus ‘Princeton Cardinal’ AGM, Malus spectabilis ‘Riversii’, Prunus litigiosa, Prunus rufa, Sorbus folgneri ‘Emiel’ AGM, Sorbus helenae and Sorbus hemsleyi ‘John Bond’ AGM, all of which are available to order from Frank P Matthews (www.frankpmatthews.com).

In conclusion, can I please ask anyone involved in the planting or sale of trees to stop and think for a moment before pressing “send” on your next tree order to your supplier and then to please add something you have not sold/offered before? Variety remains the spice of life, and life is good.]

Read the Hortweek article here