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2 october 2022

A cherry tree grew in my grandmother's back yard, on the west side of Chicago. It was messy and the cherries were flavorless, but I still remember it as an emblem of bounty in a setting of smoggy skies, flaky-grey backstairs, and begarbagecanned alleys.

Constance Kirker and Mary Newman conjure a world of cherry trees in their recent volume for the Reaktion Botanical series. Anglo-American readers think of cherries in terms of food, Japanese readers in terms of blossoms. Across the temperate zones of the world (cherry trees will not grow in the tropics), cherry is also considered one of the best woods for fine furniture. Cherry, however you think of it, has almost no bad associations. It is an organism that leads us to suspect, as Benjamin Franklin said of beer, that God wants us to be happy.

Kirker & Newman say that they will discuss just six species of cherry, but in the event they really center on four: European sweet and sour cherries, Japanese flowering cherries, and American black cherry, source of that valued lumber. All four have inspired exquisite applications, whether culinary or artistic.

And literary. Kirker & Newman cite Thomas Campion and D.H. Lawrence, but the last word in the English language belongs to A.E. Housman.

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough
begins a poem whose theme is ephemerality. Life can be too short to do anything but look at cherry trees while you have the chance. The Japanese even have a term for the fatigue brought on by looking at too many: hana-zukare (57).

I learned from Cherry that cherries grow true from seed, must have sunlight, and must be picked, at least commercially, under demanding and stressful conditions. Cherries do not ripen further once off the tree, so they must leave it at their peak (when they are also most vulnerable to birds and to splitting if conditions are too wet: an adaptation good for the species but bad for orchardists).

Prolonged cold storage can get fresh cherries from Oregon to Florida, or from Chile to China. But the result is sometimes as flavorless as the insipid tree of my Chicago childhood. The miracles of the 21st-century supply chain deliver the unlikeliest things, but the unlikely is sometimes more of a curiosity than a treasure.

Cherries are thus traditionally processed near their source, and appear in all kinds of preserved forms: jams and pie fillings, salted or dried preparations, sugared and liquored and maraschino'd. Or sometimes converted directly into liquor, as in Kirsch and Cherry Heering and many a local schnapps or pálinka.

Cherries also have a fascinating presence in world art traditions. Kirker & Newman's ventures into art history here are among the strongest sections of their book. In Japanese art, the cherry appears as blossoms, rich with symbolism of the passing of time, the climax of springtime, and the snows of last year; but also straightforwardly decorative. In Western art, the progress of the cherry is more ambiguous. Christian artists and their secular heirs used the cherry alternately to symbolize innocence, sexual ripeness, and sacrifice – alternately, or sometimes all three at once, in tantalizing polysemousness. Kirker & Newman reproduce several images where cherries might seem an afterthought – madonnas with Christ childs, Rembrandt's rape of Ganymede, Caravaggio's boy bitten by a lizard, even the famous Arnolfini portrait by van Eyck, where, in the very back corner of the scene, through a slash of open window, one can see cherries on a tree. What do these bonus cherries mean? Everything all at once, like many a symbol, it seems.

Kirker, Constance L, and Mary Newman. Cherry. London: Reaktion, 2021.