Climate change moves Sakura season

In a Tokyo train station a couple weeks ago, a stranger asked me a lightning round of questions while I waited in line for the bathroom. She wanted to know why I was in Tokyo alone, and I told her I was in town to study the cherry blossoms – which were out and blooming, and the streets were filled with families and  vendors.

She could not wait to tell me what everyone is saying these days, that the cherry bloom is happening earlier than ever. The Tokyo streets used to fill with white and pale pink blossoms starting the first or second week of April. Now, the bloom crescendos in late March as high school and college students celebrate graduation. This is a rare case in which climate change brings people and plants more in sync. The cherry blossoms open just as young people are taking steps into new seasons of life. And, just like that, after a week, the bloom is replaced by a flush of green, and life resumes.

Sakura season

This time of year in Japan is defined by the brief bloom of cherry trees. Flowering cherries -- which are in the genus Prunus with some other delightful trees like peach and almond -- are known for their bloom rather than their fruit. While they have been bred to maximize flowering, some produce small fruits.

The flowering cherry trees are called "Sakura" in Japan, and their bloom has a special meaning. People have admired these trees for thousands of years. For the most part, the age of the trees is unknown, but the oldest cherry tree that still blooms is thought to be about 2,000 years old. The Sakura are in full bloom for about a week, and they are a country-wide metaphor for the beauty and brevity of life. It's common to bury loved ones under Sakura. The Sakura also represent the end of cold weather and the beginning of the growing season.

During this week, families celebrate with flower viewings called "Hanami". The tradition is to place tarps under the trees and have lunch or dinner or both. In order to secure a prime spot, it's often necessary to pay someone to guard your tarp or arrive really early (like 6am) to claim space. Right now, people are buzzing around Tokyo with tarps and cameras. This flower viewing tradition started in the 700s -- you heard right, not the 1700s, the 700s.

The cherry bloom is happening earlier due to climate change. In the next post, I'll talk about how we know that -- fun science! -- and how the earlier bloom season has affected people in Japan. 

Cherry Blossoms

I'll post beginning on March 20, 2018 to document a 3-week research trip I'm making to Japan. I'm headed to Japan to see the cherry blossoms -- both those that are alive & blooming and those that are preserved as pressed specimens in the National Museum of Nature and Science (TNS) outside of Tokyo in Tsukuba.

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