Spring is in the air, and so is the sight of blooming cherry blossoms.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock that’s devoid of this marvelous image, you ought to know by now that these delicate, pale pink beauties happen to be Japan’s unofficial national flower.
However, there’s more than meets the eye with this wonder of nature that’s inspired countless quotes, movies, clothing, souvenirs and even recipes, especially this time of year.
Check out these 12 things you probably didn’t know about cherry blossoms:
1. You can eat them.
That’s right. In Japan — where they are known as sakura — these blossoms serve as a primary ingredient in sakurayu (literally “cherry blossom tea”) and traditional sweets, including sakura mochi, manjū and nerikiri. You can even eat the leaves of the trees they grow from.
While these blossoms are edible, we wouldn’t advise picking them like cherries (the fruit that comes from the non-ornamental cherry tree, which you shouldn’t confuse with sakura) and wolfing down mouthfuls as you stroll along the streets of Yoshino (more on this later).
Additionally, parts of the sakura tree contain harmful compounds, which brings us to No. 2.
2. Their berries contain cyanogenic compounds.
Cherry blossoms, like non-ornamental cherry trees, contain compounds that produce cyanide when broken down. This is especially the case with their unripe berries.
As per Japanese travel website Good Luck Trip, cherry blossom leaves and fruits contain poisonous cyanide, especially the unripe berries. The cherry leaves are not considered dangerous unless consumed in large quantities.
The culprit reportedly lies in the berries’ seeds. According to Minneopa Orchards, they contain “toxic amounts” of amygdalin, a chemical that the body converts into cyanide.
Some believe that sakura flowers, like their leaves, also contain minute traces of cyanogenic compounds. Global cocktail leader Difford’s Guide writes that it is advisable to eat them in “small amounts” and that the compounds’ concentration reduces as the flowers are cooked or fully dried.
U.S.-based Japanese snack company Bokksu also advises against consuming large quantities of the petals:
Cherry blossoms boast a refreshing taste — think fresh garden herbs or other edible flowers — but we wouldn’t necessarily go shoveling down raw petals by the palmful. While only in minute amounts, the same kinds of cyanide found in cherry pits are present in the plant.
Bokksu adds, “If you’re worried about cyanide poisoning, fear not — proper preparation removes the volatile compounds that can get you sick.”
3. They’re related to roses.
In plant taxonomy, sakura — in all its varieties — belongs to the rose family of flowering plants called Rosaceae, which is currently composed of around 2,500 species in more than 90 genera. They include roses (obviously) and cherry blossoms, making these flowers related.
Primarily found in the north temperate zone, Rosaceae also includes almonds, apples, cherries, loquats, pears, plums and quinces. Berries such as blackberries, boysenberries, dewberries, raspberries and strawberries also belong to the Rosaceae family.
4. Close observers say the blooming process has 11 stages.
The blooming of sakura flowers is typically reported to take place in six stages, but fans who have taken their observation skills to the next level have been recording as much as 11.
As per Time Out Tokyo, these stages, in chronological order, include (1) budding, (2) bulging bud, (3) flowering, (4) 10% bloom, (5) 30% bloom, (6) 50% bloom, (7) 70% bloom, (8) 100% or full bloom, (9) starting to fall, (10) falling and (11) officially over.
5. A sakura flower’s specific Japanese name depends on its number of petals.
For instance, blossoms that have up to 5 petals are called “hitoe” (一重), according to Japanese culture outlet Tsunagu Japan.
Flowers that have five to 10 petals are referred to as “hanyae” (半八重). Meanwhile, those with more than 10 petals are called “yae” (八重).
6. There are around 800 varieties of sakura in Japan.
As of 2022, some 800 varieties of sakura thrive in Japan, according to Tokyo Shimbun. Of these, the somei-yoshino (染井吉野; or simply yoshino) is the most common, having been cultivated since the Meiji period.
Its namesake Yoshino, a town in the Kii Mountains in Nara prefecture, is arguably Japan’s most famous spring destination due to its 30,000 yoshino trees that bloom during the season. The Nara government officially recommends viewing the blossoms from the Yoshimizu-jinja Shrine and Hanayagura Observatory, which both offer “sweeping vistas.”
7. Japan isn’t the world’s cherry blossom capital.
While the sakura has become Japan’s unofficial national flower, the East Asian country is not the world’s cherry blossom capital. That title belongs to the city of Macon in the American state of Georgia, which happens to be home to a whopping 350,000 yoshino trees, according to Country Living.
That’s about 90 times higher than the amount of yoshino trees in Washington, D.C. The U.S. capital, like Japan, has also become a favorite tourist spot in spring due to its picturesque blossoms.
8. Japan first sent cherry blossoms to the U.S. in 1910 — but authorities burned them down.
The first Japanese sakura trees given as a gift were planted in the U.S. in 1912. That batch included more than 3,000 trees that were shipped from Yokohama to D.C. via Seattle.
Although Japan first sent some 2,000 sakura trees to the U.S. two years earlier, those never bloomed as the Department of Agriculture recommended burning them after finding insects and diseases in the trees — a move that nearly sparked a diplomatic crisis, according to the Washingtonian.
9. The first actual sakura trees in the U.S. were planted in Maryland.
The trees were planted on U.S. soil years earlier. A total of 75 cherry blossom trees were purchased by Dr. David Fairchild, a Department of Agriculture official, from a Japanese nursery in 1906. He planted them on his own property in Chevy Chase, Maryland, to test their hardiness, according to the Farmers’ Almanac.
10. A rebellion took place in D.C. in the name of cherry blossoms.
In 1938, citizens and groups in D.C. protested against the construction of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial to save cherry blossom trees planned for removal. On the day of the construction, 50 women marched toward the White House with a petition — a movement that would be known as the “Cherry Tree Rebellion.”
The next day, the same women chained themselves to a tree at the construction site. Around a hundred more joined them later to grab shovels from workers, refill holes and brace themselves for a long standoff against bulldozers, but they were ultimately convinced to stand down after being served lunch and “never-ending cups of coffee,” the latter of which resulted in the women hastily unchaining themselves in their need to use the restroom, according to the National Park Service.
11. There are 400 individually named sakura trees in Amsterdam.
The Amsterdamse Bos, one of Europe’s largest city parks, is another popular spot to spot cherry blossoms in bloom. The site features 400 trees donated by the Japan Women’s Club in 2000, each of which has been named.
Half of the trees have Japanese women’s names, including Ayako, Hitomi, Mariko, Saori and Tomiko. Meanwhile, the other half have Dutch women’s names, such as Elske, Freekje, Greta, Josefien and Marjolein.
12. Scientists are working to create a second sakura season.
With blooms lasting for only up to a few weeks, it’s not surprising that people would want more opportunities to see them.
Thanks to Kyoto University botanists, sakura trees in Japan now have the potential to bloom in both spring and autumn. Interestingly, the botanists discovered the opportunity by accident while attempting to develop a rice grain that could be harvested more than once, according to the Japan Times.
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