Japanese cherry trees and hanami, the Japanese cherry blossom viewing season

Every spring throughout Japan the most beloved flower of this island nation shows its beauty, and is celebrated with ohanami, literally meaning “blossom viewing”. The flowers in question are of course the world famous flowering cherry trees, known as sakura in Japan. The star of the show is somei-yoshino, known in the west as the Yoshino cherry, Prunus x yedoensis. People gather anywhere they can find a flowering tree large enough to hold an impromptu party under its flowering boughs. They eat, drink, and take in the fine weather of early spring under their favorite national symbol.

The taxonomy of the genus Prunus is problematic at best, containing no less than six subgenera, comprising a wide range of trees. Many are grown for their fruits (plums, apricots, peaches, and of course cherries), and one species, P. dulcis, is famous for its nut, the almond. Some authorities persist in separating these groups into different genera, creating yet more confusion.

Most Prunus that are enjoyed for their flowers are in the subgenus Cerasus, the cherries. The complexity of naming them all is compounded by the extreme variation in flower forms that have been developed over the years. Ironically, most of the cherries enjoyed for their flowers are derived from a relatively few species: Prunus campanulata, P. incisa, P. jamasakura, P. serrulata, P. sargentii, P. spachiana (syn. subhirtella), and P. speciosa (syn. lannesiana). The amazing number of flower forms they can assume however, is astounding – some the result of wild hybridization, and others selected and bred by people, many with their origins lost to time.

What follows is a gallery of photos showing a few of the more common cherry trees in Japan. So with out further comment, here they are…

Hanami, the cherry blossom viewing season

Every spring Japanese people of all ages eagerly await the flowering of Yoshino cherry trees in parks throughout Japan. Ohanami nowadays is simply having a party under the flowering trees, always accompanied by food, and most folks drinking alcoholic beverages – beer, sake, and shouchu, a clear distilled liquor. The celebration pictured above is in Maizuru Koen, Fukuoka City, Kyushu, Japan.

Yoshino cherries along a river
Yoshino cherries along a river

The most commonly planted flowering cherry tree in Japan these days is Prunus x yedoensis, a presumed natural hybrid resulting from the crossing of P. speciosa and P. spachiana f. ascendens. Trees are commonly planted along rivers, streets, and in parks, but only rarely in private yards. Here is a lovely row on the Ino River in Hisayama Town, Fukuoka Prefecture, Kyushu, Japan.

prunus x yedoensis
Somei-Yoshino, the Yoshino cherry

In Japan P. x yedoensis is known simply as somei-yoshino. Its history is somewhat clouded, but how it got its name isn’t. Somei is a part of Tokyo where the tree was first grown and sold under the name yoshino. Yoshino in turn is a famous mountain covered in cherry trees in Nara Prefecture. Regardless of its origins, this flowering cherry is considered to be one of the best temperate flowering trees in the world today. Pretty impressive since it was first discovered in the mid 1800s.

Here is a video of cherries in flower in southern Japan, outlining their naming, flower type, and blooming season:

Prunus x kanzakura
Prunus x kanzakura, the cold flowering cherry

One of the earliest flowering cherry varieties is Prunus x kanzakura, blooming from late February to early March in Japan. It is a hybrid between P. campanulata and P. jamazakura. Despite its name, which means “cold cherry” (since it flowers late winter), it is in fact cold sensitive, and cannot be grown north of the Tokoyo area. Its small flowers in tight clusters add a splash of color when most trees have yet to wake from winter’s chill.

Prunus campanulata
Prunus campanulata, the Taiwan cherry

Another early flowering cherry is Prunus campanulata, a native of Taiwan, southern China, and Ishigaki Island in Okinawa Prefecture, Japan. Due to its southern distribution, it is rather cold sensitive, but then again is great for growing in warm temperate to subtropical gardens where most other flowering cherries will either perish or not flower. Its Latin name comes from the bell shaped, drooping blossoms that mimic members of the genus Campanula. Their deep rosy red color is also unusual for most cherry trees.

Prunus x okame
Prunus x okame, the Okame cherry

A commonly grown hybrid cherry is P. x okame, the cross between P. campanulata and P. incisa. It is a rather small tree with equally small, yet dainty, flowers. The flower season is early, usually in mid March in Japan, an attribute given to it by P. campanulata.

Prunus x youkouzakura
Prunus x youkouzakura, the red Yoshino cherry

A more recently produced hybrid with P. campanulata is P. x youkouzakura, and early large flowered cherry with deep pink blossoms. Developed in Ehime Prefecture, it is becoming more commonly planted since it looks almost exactly like a P. x yedoensis, but with rosy pink flowers, giving it the nickname “red Yoshino” (beniyoshino). It is the result of crossing P. campanulata with P. x yedoensis ‘Amagi’. Flowers typically open about one week earlier than P. x yedoensis, usually in late March.

Prunus jamazakura
Prunus jamazakura, the wild mountain cherry

The wild mountain cherry, Prunus jamazakura, lights up the woodlands of Japan’s low mountains and hills each spring. This wild tree flowers synchronously with P. x yedoensis in late March to mid April. Unlike its cultivated cousin however, the flowers are borne alongside the coppery red new leaves, creating a shockingly contrasty splash of color, especially when backlit. This is another one of Japan’s quintessential flowering cherries, but this time without the intervention of human hands. Trees can get quite large compared to other cherries, in part due to their competition for sunlight in dense forest settings.

Prunus speciosa
Prunus speciosa, the Oshima cherry

Another wild species of Prunus that has been integral in the development of many cultivated Japanese cherry varieties (collectively known as satozakura) is P. speciosa. The flowers open a bit later than P. x yedoensis, are large, and mostly white in color. It originates from Ooshima Island in the famous Izu Islands south of Tokyo, as well as the Izu Peninsula in the same region. The young, large leaves are wrapped around pounded rice (mochi) and azuki bean paste to create traditional Japanese sweets called sakura mochi. Historically it has been classified as a variety of two other species, P. jamazakura and more persistently, P. lannesiana.

Prunus spachiana pendula
Prunus spachiana f. spachiana 'Pendula'

The weeping form of P. spachiana f. spachiana is called shidare zakura, meaning “weeping cherry”. The upright version of the same species is f. ascendens, one of the parent plants of P. x yedoensis, and known as edohigan in Japan. Again, there exists a lot of confusion regarding the naming of these well known trees. Many authorities still consider both the weeping and upright forms to be varieties of P. subhirtella (v. pendula and v. ascendens, respectively). In any event, these trees flower from late March to mid April with five petaled, relatively small white to pink flowers. Both are large growing trees, up to 10 meters or more tall, and can be relatively long lived (>200 years). The one pictured above is a young tree growing at Maizuru Koen, Fukuoka City, Kyushu, Japan.

Prunus 'Yaebenishidare'
Prunus spachiana f. spachiana 'Yaebenishidare'

A lovely deep pink, mulitpetaled variety of P. spachiana is ‘Yaebenishidare’ (multi-petaled red weeping cherry). Flower color in this form is generally much deeper than in the five petaled form, and the tree is usually not much taller than five meters (the one pictured above is about maximum size). Their flowering period is a week to 10 days later than the five petaled forms, so trees can be in peak bloom well after the main cherry blossom season, often until mid April in southern Japan. This tree is also known under the names P. subhirtella v. pendula ‘Plenorosea’ and ‘Pendularosea’. A compact and gorgeous tree for the home garden.

Prunus 'Shirotae'
Prunus 'Shirotae', the Mount Fuji cherry

A large flowered multi-petaled cherry with pendulous flowers is Prunus ‘Shirotae’, also known by the common name Mount Fuji cherry. It is one of the cultivated varieties of cherry known as satozakura (village cherry). Again, naming is a problem with this group of trees since at least two species, P. speciosa and P. serrulata, were used to create them. This is a lovely tree, with nearly pure white flowers upon opening, but developing pink blushing as they age. This is a spreading tree, growing more outward than upward, and so needs space to grow unrestricted.

Prunus 'Ukon'
Prunus 'Ukon'

A really neat satozakura form is P. ‘Ukon’. Ukon means “turmeric” in Japanese, an allusion to the yellow green flowers of this multi-petaled, late flowering cherry. The flowers open just as the last Yoshino cherry blossoms fall, around mid April, and persist for a couple weeks. The flowers open green with white banding, and over time become blushed with pink and deeper striations of purple. The tree’s form is upright and slightly spreading, eventually forming an umbrella shape typically not more than four to five meters high, and nearly as wide. This is an old form dating back at least 300 years.

Prunus 'Kanzan'
Prunus 'Kanzan'

Another old variety of satozakura is P. ‘Kanzan’, a tree commonly seen in the west as well as Japan. Its multi-petaled, deep pink, large flowers look like pompons, or chrysanthemum corsages decorating the nearly leafless branches. The coppery colored leaves sprout just as the blossoms are peaking, and fade to a rich green as they mature. This is a large growing tree, typically under 10 meters, but sometimes taller. You can see mass plantings of them in Washington, D.C., flowering after the Yoshino cherries have faded. In Japan these are commonly called yaezakura, meaning “multilayered cherry”. Other names for this tree are P. ‘Kwanzan’ and P. ‘Sekiyama’.

Prunus kikuzakura
Prunus 'Chrysanthemoides', the chrysanthemum cherry

Another great late flowering satosakura is Prunus ‘Chrysanthemoides’, called kikuzakura in Japan, meaning “chrysanthemum cherry”. This remarkable tree flowers and leafs out synchronously, but the flowers are easy to see since they droop downward in huge clusters that look like hanging bouquets. The number of petals they have is astounding as well – between 80 to 130 per flower! A relatively small tree.


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