Ever dreamed of getting lost in a cherry blossom hanagasumi (that’s Japanese for “flower haze”)? Here is a fifteen-minute guide to the magic of cherry blossoms including how to tell them apart from similar flowers; cherry blossoms meaning and symbolism; with tips for enjoying the annual Spring bloom in Japan and across the world.
What are cherry blossoms?
“Blossoms” generally refer to flowers of stone fruit trees that bloom for short, concentrated periods during spring. Cherries, nectarines, plums, peaches, almonds and apricots grow on flowering shrubs and trees that belong to the genus Prunus, which falls under the family Rosaceae (rose family) and produce similar blossoms. The cherries we eat generally come from the species Prunus avium (sweet cherry) or Prunus cerasus (sour cherry). There are also numerous species of cherry trees bred for ornamental purposes, which generally means they produce more blossoms and less or no fruit.
When do cherry trees blossom?
Cherry trees prefer a temperate climate and bloom during spring. Peak bloom occurs over one to two weeks depending on the weather, as rain and/or wind can cause them to drop their petals more quickly. Bloom predictions cannot be made too far in advance, as it depends on preceding winter weather, for example, a late chill will delay the blossoms arrival and vice versa. Due to this climate dependency, latitude and altitude are both factors that will affect the timing of a cherry trees blossom. Another consideration is tree species, some are naturally early or late bloomers.
Where did cherry blossoms originate?
Though cherry trees are closely associated with Japan, they are thought to have originated in the Himalayas and migrated to the Land of the Rising Sun thousands of years ago. Hybridisation is responsible for the three-hundred plus varieties that exist today.
What is the cultural meaning of cherry blossoms?
In Japan, where cherry blossoms are known as Sakura and are the most culturally significant, their brief but intense bloom symbolizes transience, beauty, and fragility. It is referred to in Japanese as “mono-no-aware” which translates to “the pathos of things,” acknowledging the brevity of life. The flowers are also a sign of renewal, as they herald the changing season. The cherry blossom and chrysanthemum are both national flowers of Japan. Due to their revered nature in Japanese culture, cherry trees have been gifted by Japan, to cities and countries around the world. This has contributed to their spread to places such as Europe and North America.
Are cherry blossoms edible?
Yes, a cherry blossom is edible although fresh flowers have little taste or scent. In Japan, they are made into seasonal food items including tea, sweet alcoholic beverages, ice cream, and jelly. Flowers and leaves are pickled in salt or plum vinegar and added to dishes such as sakuramochi, a rice cake filled with red bean paste and wrapped in a pickled cherry tree leaf.
How to identify a cherry tree?
Prunus blossoms tend to look similar and therefore blossoming cherry trees are often confused with plum and peach trees. In addition, Crabapples (genus: Malus) and Bradford or Callery pears (genus: Pyrus) which also belong to the rose family, Rosaceae, have flowers that resemble cherry blossoms. Add to that, the many different species of cherry blossoms that exist and it is easy to get confused. Here are some basics guides on how to tell the difference:
|Cherry Blossom||Plum Blossom (Chinese plum or Japanese apricot)||Peach Blossom||Crabapple||Pear Blossom (Bradford or Callery)|
|Petals||Long, overlapping petals with a small cleft in each.||Round petals.||Five teardrop shaped petals. Flowers are solitary or paired.||Elongated petals that do not overlap and are deep pink to white.|
|Bark||The bark of a cherry tree often has small horizontal lines called lenticels.||Plum trees have darker coloured bark with no distinctive markings.||Young trees have horizontal lenticels similar to cherry trees. Mature tree bark is scaly.||Pale, greyish-brown bark with vertical fissures.||Pale bark with vertical fissures.|
|Buds||Cherry blossoms have ovular-shaped buds on long stems, which grow in clusters that attach to the branch at a single point.||Plum buds are spherical and have no stems, growing straight from the branch.||Peach blossoms generally grow in pairs from with shorter stems.||Flowers grow in clusters of 5-7.|
|Scent||Faint scent.||Strong, flowery scent.||Strong, sweet scent.||Unpleasant smell, like rotting fish.||Mild and sweet to unpleasant.|
|Leaves||Cherry trees have unfolding, green leaves that usually don’t grow until after the tree has flowered.||Plum trees have rolled, reddish-purple leaves.||Peach tree leaves are partially emerged when flowers bloom.||Range from glossy green to purple-reds.|
Cherry blossom species
Cherry blossoms naturally have five petals, however, species bred for certain qualities (referred to as cultivars) may possess many more. Here are some common species with their distinguishing features:
Somei Yoshino or Yoshino Cherry – Cultivated during the Edo Period in Tokyo, the Yoshino is very pale pink, almost white in colour and possesses five petals.
Yamazakura – wild cherry tree with very pale pink blossoms that have relatively small petals.
Shidarezakura (Weeping Cherry) – Characterised by drooping branches with flowers of five or more petals.
Ukon – These flowers have ten-twenty petals of yellowish or pale-green colour and copper-hued leaves. Ukon meaning “turmeric.”
Kwanzan (Kanzan) – A blossom with thirty-fifty petals in pink and young copper leaves that turn green.
Japanese cherry blossom terminology
Before you experience cherry blossom season in Japan (or anywhere else for that matter), here are a few terms you should know:
Sakura – is the name for cherry blossoms in Japanese.
Yaezakura – is a category of cherry blossoms that have more than five petals.
Sakura zensen – is the cherry blossom front, as the bloom advances south to north across Japan.
Hanami – which translates as “flower viewing” is the Japanese tradition of holding picnics under blooming cherry trees which has existed since the 8th century.
Yozakura – is the Japanese term for viewing cherry blossoms at night, with the trees often strung with lanterns.
Hanagasumi – translates as “flower haze,” describing the vision of many blossoms.
Hana-yori-dango – is a proverb that means “dumplings rather than flowers” – or more generically – “the practical over the aesthetic.” It refers to people attending hanami who are more interested in eating than the flowers.
Best places to see cherry blossoms in bloom
Of course, Japan would be an ideal spot for indulging in all things cherry blossom-related (including sakura ice cream), but if you can’t make it, there are plenty of places you can revel in some hanami. Here are a few of the best locations to see cherry blossoms in Japan and throughout the world.
Mt Yoshino, Nara Prefecture, Japan – 30,000 cherry trees are located in Japan’s most famous cherry blossom viewing location.
Maruyama-kōen, Kyoto, Japan – 680 cherry trees including “Weeping Cherry of Gion,” a 10m-tall tree.
Shinjuku Gyoen, Tokyo, Japan – dozens of varieties that include early and late bloomers.
Hirosaki Park, Aomori Prefecture, Japan – Home to 2,600 cherry trees.
Chureito Pagoda, Fujiyoshida, Ymanashi Prefecture, Japan – for the iconic view of Mount Fuji framed with cherry blossoms.
Longwangtang Cherry Blossom Park, Dalian, China – planted by Japanese during their occupation of China throughout WWII.
Jinhae Gunhangje Festival, Jinhae, South Korea
Kungsträdgården (King’s Tree Garden), Stockholm, Sweden – 63 Japanese cherry trees.
Fiesta del Cerezo en Flor (Cherry Blossom Festival), Jerte Vally, Spain – over 2 million cherry trees.
Parc de Sceaux, Sceaux France – two orchards, one pink and one white flowering trees.
Kirschblütenfest (Cherry Blossom Festival), Hamburg, Germany – 5000 cherry trees.
Brooklyn Botanic Garden, New York, USA – 42 different varieties of cherry trees.
National Cherry Blossom Festival, National Mall, Washington DC, USA – 3000 trees gifted from Japan.
International Cherry Blossom Festival, Macon, Georgia, USA – 300,000 cherry trees.
Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival, Vancouver, Canada – 43,000 cherry trees throughout the city.
Botanical Garden of Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil – home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan.
Sakura Matsuri, Cowra Japanese Garden, New South Wales, Australia – largest Japanese garden in the Southern Hemisphere.
Planning to see cherry blossoms in Japan
There are a few basics you need to know about cherry blossoms before you plan your trip to Japan:
- Cherry blossoms in Japan bloom mid-January to early-May, advancing south to north with Spring’s arrival. Sakura blooms vary in timing year to year and are affected by location, altitude and tree species.
- Keep in mind that roughly eighty-percent of cherry trees in Japan are the somei yoshino variety, which are mid-season bloomers.
- Here is a rough guide to bloom times for different locations, south to north. Again, these are averages, in 2018 cherry blossoms appeared earlier than usual. Keep an eye on the Japanese National Tourism website and Japan Guide for up to date information.
Mid January — Okinawa (Pacific islands)
Mid March — Nagasaki; Fukuoka (Kyushu)
Late March — Matsuyama; Osaka; Tokyo; Kyoto; Hiroshima; Kanazawa (Honshu)
Early April — Sendai (Mid-Honshu)
Mid April — Aomori (North Honshu)
Early May — Sapporo (Hokkaido)
- Accommodation will naturally be more expensive at this time due to the influx of visitors.
- Pack clothing you can layer. Spring days can be warm but with much cooler evenings. Also take your best wet weather gear including shoes, as rain is frequent throughout the season.
- Take a flask of your favourite beverage. Japan has no restrictions on alcohol in public places, so you can sip your favourite tipple while enjoying hanami.
Hanami (flower viewing) etiquette
There are a few commonsense rules you should stick to when enjoying cherry blossoms:
- Respect the trees. Don’t climb them, nor pick the blossoms or shake the branches.
- Furthermore, place your picnic blanket away from the tree roots.
- Don’t be too loud, especially during yozakura (night sakura).
- Only take as much space as you need.
- Always take your garbage with you.
- Check park rules as they vary. Not all blossoming cherry trees are an authorized hanami location.
Have you experienced the splendour of cherry blossoms in Japan? Please share your experience with us in the comments below.
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