“I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry blossoms.”
I’m not *quite* sure what Neruda had in mind, but it sounds like fun… Coming home the other day, I was greeted by the heady, sweet-almond scent of cherry blossom, which had burst into full bloom after hours of warm sunshine. I remember being faintly disappointed when I was given that tree, an ornamental variety which doesn’t bear fruit, though the fragrant spring blossoms and scarlet Autumn leaves soon made up for the lack of cherries.
For over a thousand years, the Japanese have celebrated the beauty of blossom, with ‘Hanami’ festivals dedicated to picnic-ing under the Sakura (cherry) or Ume (plum) trees as they flower. From late February to early May, they wait for the petals to unfurl, from the cloud-like fluffy white flowers of Somei-Yoshino, to more modern cultivars in bright pink and even red.
These days, regular weather forecasts track the progress of the opening blossoms across Japan, so that people can go to parks, shrines and temples for flower-viewing parties. This trend has spread as far as the cherry trees themselves, with similar festivals held in the USA, Australia, Germany and the Netherlands. In the UK, you can visit Batsford Arboretum or Keele University to see spectacular collections of cherries blooming en masse.
There is a darker side to these fragrant flowers; in Japanese mythology, Konohanasakuya-hime was the blossom-princess and symbol of delicate earthly life. She became the wife of the god Ninigi – but because Ninigi had refused to marry her older sister, the rock-princess, human lives were destined to be short and fleeting, like the sakura blossoms, instead of long lasting, like stones.
Samurai warriors were often compared to sakura blossoms – born to live brilliantly and die young – and cherry blossom was also used to promote Japanese patriotism during World War II, with flowers painted onto bomber planes to symbolise the intensity and ephemerality of life. Kamikaze pilots became heavily identified with falling blossoms, and people were encouraged to believe that the souls of doomed fighters would be reincarnated in the trees each spring.
Garden purists tend to find the flamboyant, candy-coloured varieties unspeakably vulgar, but a walk down a street planted with these most effervescent of blossom trees is almost guaranteed to lift your spirits. For me, they bring back a wonderful memory of childhood; the drive in front of my school was lined with ornamental cherries, which for a few weeks each year were smothered in ballerina-pink blossoms, frilly and flouncy as old-fashioned lace knickers; and a welcome sign that spring was finally here to stay.
For more info about cherry blossom season in Japan, click here.
If you are interested in planting your own cherry tree, then Thornhayes Nursery in Cullompton, Devon has a great selection.