By Melissa Conroy
Thousands of delicate white and pink cherry blossoms waving in the breeze is a familiar Spring sight and a lovely reminder that Winter has passed and warmer days are ahead. Although the cherry blossom season is fleeting, the trees’ spectacular display is well worth the long wait, and millions of people across the world enjoy spending time under the flowering branches of cherry trees every Spring.
Cherry blossom trees are part of the genus Prunus and are cousins to almond, plum, and other fruit trees. However, many blooming cherry trees are ornamental and do not produce anything except their lovely flowers every Spring. This doesn’t mean that they are useless as a food source; if you are ever in Japan, you might be offered sakurayu (salt-pickled cherry blossoms in hot water) or sakuramochi (sweet pink rice and red bean paste with a cherry blossom leaf).
We have Japan to thank for the elegant show of blossoms that appear around the U.S. every Spring. Centuries ago during the Nara Period (710-794), Japanese people began the practice of hanami, where members of the Imperial Court would picnic under blooming trees. While the Japanese nobles originally chose ume (plum and apricot) blossoms for their picnic viewing, cherry blossoms grew in popularity during the Heian Period (794-1185) at the same time that hanami spread to the samurai class. By the Edo period (1603-1868), hanami was enjoyed by people from all levels of society with sakura (cherry blossoms) as the main focus.
Japan graciously spread both hanami and sakura to the U.S. as a gesture of goodwill and friendship through the work of several people, starting with a Mrs. Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore. In 1885, Mrs. Scidmore returned from her first visit to Japan with an idea to plant cherry blossom trees along the Potomac waterfront. Her petitions to the U.S. government were denied for 24 years before Dr. David Fairchild, an official for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, imported 75 cherry trees from Japan and planted them on his own property. Scidmore and Fairchild worked together to promote the cultivation of blossoming cherry trees in the U.S., and in 1908, Japan gave the U.S. 2,000 cherry trees as a gift. Unfortunately, the trees were infected and had to be burned. Undaunted, Japan sent the U.S. 3,020 new cherry trees of 12 different varieties, which arrived in D.C. on March 26, 1910. They were ceremoniously planted and thrived in their new home, attracting more admirers every Spring. In 1935, the first Cherry Blossom Festival was held in Washington, D.C. to celebrate Japan’s gift; this festival still takes place every year in our nation’s capital.
Today, the U.S. still cherishes Japan’s gift and works to preserve the original trees’ genetic line as well as its relationship with Japan. On Nov. 15, 1999, 50 new cherry trees were planted in West Potomac Park. These trees were propagated from a nearly 1,500-year-old cherry tree which grows in the Japanese village of Itash Neo and is a national treasure. In 2011, the U.S. sent 120 cherry trees to Japan that were propagated from the original 1912 cherry trees and were given in order to maintain their genetic lineage and symbolize the U.S.’s continued friendship.
While we in the U.S. enjoy cherry blossoms simply for their loveliness, these elegant blooms play a more central symbolic role in Japanese culture. The Japanese term mono no aware speaks of being attuned to life’s ephemeral qualities, and the cherry blossom elegantly represents this awareness. The cherry blossom season is only a week or two and while this time is breathtakingly splendid, it is over quickly and should be cherished while it happens. Japanese poetry, songs, plays, and other artistic works often use the symbolism of sakura to remind people about the fleeting nature of life.
You don’t have to travel to Japan to participate in your own hanami: There are several cherry blossom viewing spectacles around the U.S. the most spectacular being the National Cherry Blossom Festival that takes place from March 20 to April 14.
In our nonstop, ever-moving world, we need little reminders to slow down and savor nature. You can herald the new season by indulging in a hanami of your own with some loved ones.