Cherry trees in Yoshino
Cherry trees and cherry blossoms---both known as sakura---are a big deal in Japan. The pink flowers of the favorite cherry species, Yoshino sakura, last only for a three or four days. Their short but sweet existence has been glorified and romanticized in Japanese poems, kabuki plays and paintings over the centuries. A falling cherry blossom has traditionally been the symbol of a brave young samurai or kamikaze warrior whose life was snuffed in the prime of his youth. In old samurai movies, often a samurai died, the camera focuses on his dead body and then panned to a cherry tree.

Soba noodles, fish paste, sparkling wine, jellies, candies, ice cream and other food are available in sakura-themed versions during the cherry blossom season. Many of them are flavored with cherries or cherry blossoms. Others have pictures of cherry blossoms on them or are simply pink in color. Pickled sakura blossoms are served on rice, added to soups and sprinkled in sake. Sakura leaves are used to wrap rice and give it a fragrant smell. Sometimes people eat the leaves. A number of hot and cold drinks use sakura leaves or blossoms as a flavoring.

Cherry Trees in Japan

There are two main kinds of cherry trees. Those produce the sweet, red fruit, and those that produce beautiful white and pink blossoms in the spring but no edible fruit. Because the blossoming trees are sterile hybrids they are fruitless.

Cherry trees are a member of the rose family. Cherry blossoms look very much like the flowers of a wild rose. Wild cherry trees originated in Asia. The fruit-bearing varieties spread from Asia to Europe in ancient times and made their way to the New World from there.

Cherry tree blossoms generally have five petals and bloom before the leaves appear. The blooming period is generally around 15 days with peak in the middle, lasting about four days. The blossom often disappear when it rains or there are strong winds.

The Yoshino is perhaps the best loved all the sakura varieties, Named after a town near Kyoto and Nara famous for cherry trees, it is hybrid of unknown origin with white or pale pin almond-scented flowers.

Other popular varieties include the akebono, with pale pink blossoms that fade to white and then turn pink against before they wilt; the Kwanzan, which produces pink clustered flowers with about 30 petals each that bloom about two weeks after most sakura reach their peak; the Usuzami, whose names means “cherry tree of gray blossoms” because it flower petals change from pink to white to gray.

There are yellow and green cherry blossoms. Usuzumi trees can grow as high as 40 feet and were declared a national treasure in 1922. They are regarded as the oldest variety with some trees tracing their lineage back to a 1,400-year-old tree.

In 2008, seeds from 14 different kinds of Japanese cherry trees were placed on the International Space Station (ISS). About 265 chujohime Segan-zakura seeds were stored on the ISS for 8½ months. Since returning to earth some of these seeds thought incapable of germinating have germinated and produced trees that produced new seeds. Other types of cherry seeds have produced plants that have grown extraordinary fast. Some Daigo-zan trees grown from from ISS seeds have grown 160 centimeters a year, more than three times the normal growth rate. The cause of the phenomena is unknown. Some scientists think that zero gravity or strong radiation caused genetic mutation or activated seed cells.

Somei-Yoshino and Yamazakura Cherry Trees

Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: “Most Japanese think of the somei-yoshino ornamental cherry blossoms as heralding the onset of real spring weather. This particular ornamental variety (Prunus x yedoensis), with light-pink flowers that densely blanket the branches before the new leaves emerge, is the cherry tree that is considered to be the symbol of the nation.”[Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, April 21, 2011]

“The somei-yoshino, however, is thought by most botanists to have been developed artificially sometime in the 18th or 19th century, and did not gain widespread popularity until a little more than 100 years ago. Before that, a species of native wild cherry, the yamazakura (P. jamasakura), was widely planted and admired at flower-viewing parties. The famous cherry trees at Yoshino in Nara Prefecture are all yamazakura.”

“This tree's Japanese name is literally translated as "mountain cherry," but the term yama can also carry the connotation of forest and woodland, and in plant names is often used to separate a wild species, which grows in the forest, from a cultivated one found in gardens. Yamazakura are still common in native deciduous woodlands, usually coming into full bloom just as the somei-yoshino flowers are wilting.”

“Unlike the somei-yoshino, the new leaves and the flowers of the yamazakura open simultaneously. Flowers, usually in bunches of three to four, emerge from different buds than do the leaves. Although the flower petals are predominantly white, the new leaves and the bud scales are reddish-brown, giving the tree a pinkish tint when viewed from a distance. Also, the yamazakura is a fertile species, reproducing naturally by seed, while the somei-yoshino can only be propagated from cuttings”.

History of Cherry Trees in Japan

Cherry blossoms were not always the flower of choice. The 8th century poetry competition Manyoshu contained 148 poems referring to hagi bush clover, 118 featuring plum blossoms but only two mention cheery blossom. Academics have suggested the reason for this was that plum blossom had only been introduced `from China in 7th and were believed to be popular among the court as they were still something of a novelty.

Cherry blossom viewing was given a big boost in A.D. 759 when the capital of Japan switched from Nara, a plum blossom town, to Kyoto, a cherry blossom town. Blossom viewing reached its zenith with opulent “cherry blossom viewing at daigo” under leader Hideyoshi Toyotomi (1536-1598). In the Edo period (1603-1867) the cherry blossom season was regarded as the best time for ordinary people to enjoy themselves in public.

The popularity of cherry trees took off in the 1700s when Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune ordered the masses to plant yamazakura cherry trees along riversides and hills along Tokyo perimeter to please commoners who lived in crowded housing. The custom of hanami, or cherry tree viewing became popular after that.

Cherry Blossom Parties in Japan

At the end of March and the beginning of April, when in most of Japan the cherry blossoms which symbolize the country begin to bloom, the Japanese people like to make merry at picnics known as hanami (“flower- viewing”), held under blossoming cherrytrees. The custom of arranging picnics to eat and drink under the spring blossoms has been widespread among the common people since the Edo period.

During cherry blossom season everyone in Japan heads to a park, square or pond where the flowers can be seen. Newspapers display "flower front-line," maps which shows when the sakura blossom in each city; restaurants offer special dishes and cocktails with cherry blossoms sprinkled on top; and karoakes dust off books with cherry blossom songs. So many people visit Tokyo's Ueno Park during hana-mi ("honorable flower viewing party") season that newly hired salarymen and office ladies are recruiting to go the park before dawn to stake places on the lawn for their superiors who often don't arrive until 12 hours later. [Source: T.R. Reid, Washington Post]

"Sitting around the blue tarpaulin with fellow, members of the class, club or company, the Japanese cherry-blossom-viewers fires up the portable karaoke machine," writes T.R. Reid in the Washington Post. "They sing, drink beer, sing some more, drink hot sake, sing some more, drink green tea---all the while drinking in the fragile, transient beauty of the cherry blossoms." At the annual "The Prime Minister Cherry Blossom Viewing Party" at Shinjuku Gardens the Emperor dips his wooden cup into sake-filled wooden bowl then takes a sip and recites a poem about the fleeting beauty of cherry blossoms.

Cherry Blossom Predictions in Japan

During the cherry blossom season the Japan Meteorological Agency issues reports on cherry blossom blooming times. Every night on the news, there are progress reports of the of the northward advance of the “blossom front” and tips on blossom viewing. Cherry blossoms have been blooming earlier than usual in recent years. Global warming is believed to be involved.

Cherry blossom forecasters use different prediction methods. The Private weather forecasting company Weathernews relies on survey information from about 10,000 human monitors across the country who are registered on the company’s mobile Web site. The Meteorological Agency uses fully automated meteorological stations set up across Japan.

Weathernews offers a subscription service. Many of its customers want to know exactly when the cherries will bloom in their locality so they can schedule local events accordingly. Monitors send the company cell phone pictures of cherry tree buds and information on the weather in the area. The Meteorological Agency makes predications using a formula based on past data and current weather conditions. It used to have human monitors at its stations but the stations have now been made fully automated to reduce costs.

The Japanese government scrapped its annual cherry blossom forecasts in 2010, citing private-sector firms that provide the same information. In December 2009, according to AFP, Japan’s weather agency said that it would stop forecasting the start of cherry blossom season, an annual headache that has embarrassed forecasters in the past. The agency has been trying since 1955 to predict when the cherry trees will bloom, a rite that draws millions who picnic under the petals. In 2007, the chief weatherman was forced to bow in apology after a wrong forecast. The agency will continue observing cherry trees to declare the official opening of the flower season, an official said. [Source: AFP, December 25, 2009]

Washington Cherry Trees

In 1912, cherry trees were given by the mayor of Tokyo to Washington D.C. as a token of goodwill. When about a 1,000 trees were removed to make way for the Jefferson Memorial, a group of woman chained themselves to the trees in protest. The first cherry tree was planted around the Tidal basin in March 1912 by First Lady Helen Taft, the wife of U.S. President Howard Taft. The second was planted by Japanese Ambassador to the United States , Sutemi Chinda. He arrived in Washington after taking a steam ship across the Pacific via Hawaii to San Francisco, and then traveled across the U.S. via Chicago to Washington.

On the 100th anniversary of the planting of cherry trees in Washington in 2012, Steve Hendrix wrote in the Washington Post: “You’ll seldom find a more gnarled, knobbed or bent-over bunch of geezer trees than these ancient Yoshino cherries lining a short stretch of the Tidal Basin. It’s an orchard of gnomes and trolls, a grove of exhausted old- timers boasting all the upright rigor of melted candles. And yet, stand back. The “originals” are about to bust a bloom. For the 100th spring in a row, it’s showtime for the survivors of the first 3,000 Japanese cherry trees planted here a century ago this month. [Source: Steve Hendrix, Washington Post March 11, 2012]

“The number of alums from the Class of 1912 is down to a few dozen, most of them bunched in this little forest of the wizened next to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. They are living relics of history’s greatest diplo-botanical goodwill gesture, and they’ve borne a century of witness to a transformation they helped to spark: the emergence of Washington as not just a powerful city but a beautiful one. [Ibid]

“The first cherry trees helped crystallize an image of what Washington could look like,” said Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and one of the watchdogs of Washington’s core handsomeness. “It’s remarkable that some of the original trees are still with us. “Usually, getting 50 years from a Yoshino is pretty good,” said Chris Roddick, chief arborist of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden in New York, where the most ancient Yoshino cherry is a trifling 29 years old. [Ibid]

“The few dozen originals survived it all. From cuttings taken from the banks of Tokyo’s Arakawa River all the way into the heart of Washington --- and the hearts of Washingtonians --- not a bad century at all. “To live for a 100 years in that environment is significant,” said Margaret Pooler, a geneticist at the U.S. National Arboretum. She has taken cuttings from the originals, and clones of the trees are among the 100 to 150 replacement cherries planted around the Mall each year. [Ibid]

“Some of the clones have been sent back to Japan. The gift has become an exchange, and there are now Washington cherry trees growing in Tokyo. “Especially as I get older, I appreciate them,” Pooler said. “They get wider and kind of gnarly, but they’re essentially still living the life of a 20-year-old. They’re lucky that way.” [Ibid]

Books: “Cherry Blossoms: The official book of the National Cherry Blossom Festival” and “The Cherry Blossom Festival: Sakura Celebration” by Ann McClellan. [Ibid]

Plum Blossom Season in Japan

Before the cherry blossom season, winter is ushered out with plum blossom season. Blooming as early February, Japanese plum trees are technically members of the Western apricot family. They have velvety, fragrant red, blue, pink, yellow and white blossoms that last much longer than the scentless pink and white cherry blossoms.

Plum trees are works of art with slender trunks and gnarled branches created by years of nearly constant pruning. In Japan, there are plum trees that grow at a 60 degree angle and have yellow, pink and blue blossoms all on the same tree. The plum is one of the most popular fruits in Japan. Products made with the fruit include salted plums, bitter unripe plums, plum crackers, plum tea, plum jam, plum vinegar, plum wine and even plum noodles.

Dogen (1200-1253), a Zen Buddhist teacher and the founder of the Soto school of Zen, used the term "Baikaryoku" (power of the plum flower) in his book "Shobogenzo," which translates literally as "treasury of the true Dharma eye." The wind blows, snow falls and the seasons come and go--these are all brought about by the power of the plum flower, he said, meaning everything is a blessing from the plum flower. [Source: Henshu Techo, Yomiuri Shimbun, October 6, 2011]

Image Sources: All Ray Kinnane except Yoshino trees (JNTO) and cherry blossoms (amolife)

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated August 2012

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