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Need to know ~ Topics & Events

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Cherry Blossoms 2021

Mount Yoshina, Japan, during the peak of cherry tree blossoming

Photo: Luca Peternel, CC BY-SA 4.0

Cherry blossoms near Zenpukuji River, Tokyo, Japan

Photo: ajari, CC BY 2.0

Why current?


Each year, the emergence of cherry blossoms heralds the arrival of spring.  Certain parts of the world are particularly famous for their displays of these pink beauties, including Japan and the eastern United States.

This year, the cherry trees began blooming unusually early.  In fact, their peak in Japan occurred earlier than in any other year in the past 1,200 years.  In the city of Kyoto, records of the timing of the cherry blossoms have been kept since 812 AD.  Yasuyuki Aono, a scientist at Osaka Perfecture University, has been studying these records.  He says that the peak of the cherry tree blooms had been around the middle of April for hundreds of years.  But since the 1800s, their blossoming has been shifting earlier and earlier.  This year’s peak date for blossoms in Kyoto was March 26, and in Tokyo, it was March 22.  Such early flowering had occurred only a few times in history, according to Aono’s research.

So what caused this early blossoming of cherry trees?  Scientists report that the uncommonly cold winter, followed by the relatively early start of a very warm spring was the perfect recipe for the trees’ early bloom. Moreover, the trend of an earlier and earlier flowering is shown by the extensive records of cherry blossoms in Japan.  Scientists attribute this shift to the warming climate.  They fear that it will not just affect the timing of cultural events connected to the blossoming trees or the tourists who try to plan their trips to view the cherry trees at their peak.  The trees’ early blooming represents a global problem caused by climate change that is changing the growing patterns of plants and the behaviors of animals and throwing off crucial balances in the ecosystems that will likely lead to mass extinctions.  Here’s why.  Many flowering plants depend on insects to pollinate them.  At the same time, insects depend on plants for food.  If plants flower early, and insects are not yet at the right stage in their development to feed on them, those plants will not be pollinated and insects won’t find the food they need when they reach maturity.  If plant and insect life cycles are no longer in sync, the result could be the dying out of both plants and insects, which will affect other animals all the way up the food chain.

Not only in Japan did the cherry blossoms make an early appearance.  The same was observed among the trees that famously grace the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C.  The National Park Service reported that the peak of the trees’ bloom was about a week earlier than normal.

More about cherry trees and their blossoms

– Cherry trees probably originated somewhere in the Himalayan region and then spread into Japan.

– While there are more than 200 different kinds of cherry, the most common is somei yoshino.

– Typically, cherry trees live for about 30-40 years.

– In Japan, cherry blossoms are known as sakura.  They are beloved and revered as a symbol of rebirth, but the transient beauty of the flowers serves as a reminder of the ephemeral nature of life.  For centuries, sakura has played a central role in Japanese literature and art.

– People in Japan treasure the experience of walking and sitting amidst the loveliness of the cherry blossoms.  The tradition of hanami – meaning “watching blossoms” – entails gathering with friends and family for picnics and parties under the blooming trees.  This custom dates back hundreds of years, when emperors and others in the imperial courts wrote down their experiences celebrating sakura.

Yozakura is the name for nighttime gatherings amongst the blooms.  People hang paper lanterns in the trees to light up the blossoms.

-Cherry blossom season can last for a few weeks.  But individual trees usually bloom for just about one week.  The peak of blooming is when 70% of the flowers are open.

-Before the pandemic, some 1.5 million visitors came to Washington, D.C. to see the spectacular display of blossoming cherry trees along the Potomac River and around the Lincoln and Washington Memorials.  The National Cherry Blossom Festival in D.C. is the biggest celebration of its kind in the United States.  This festival is actually a commemoration of the close relationship between Japan and the U.S.  In 1912, Japan sent 3,000 cherry trees to Washington.  A few years later, the Americans sent flowering dogwood trees to Japan, to reciprocate this gesture of friendship.

Sources: BBC, “Japan’s cherry blossom ‘earliest peak since 812,” https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia, March 30, 2021; Yeung, Jessie; Wang, Selina; Van Dam, Derek, edition.cnn.com, “Japan just recorded its earliest cherry blossom bloom in 1,200 years,” https://edition.cnn.com/japan-cherry-blossoms.html, April 6, 2021; Shinners, Rebecca, House Beautiful, “16 Things You Didn’t Know About Cherry Blossoms,” https://www.housebeautiful.com/cherry-blossoms, April 4, 2016; Farmers’ Almanac; “10 Interesting Facts About Cherry Blossoms You Didn’t Know,” https://www.farmersalmanac.com/cherry-blossom, April 5, 2021.