March 20, 2011

Sakura, or cherry blossom

The cherries are coming out all over the city, bridal white or blessing the pavements below with palest pink. Before long they will bloom in Japan, where the tradition of hanami, or picnicking beneath flowering cherries, is centuries old. Perhaps the disaster-hit country will have no time for hanami this year; after all, the short-lived blossoms also represent mono no aware, the fleeting nature of life; but perhaps this year the indefatigable cherry blossom will be a sign of hope. As well as being a symbol of mortality, sakura is also an omen of good fortune, after all.

Here, cherries are much favoured by town councils. They are cheap and low maintenance: they rarely exceed a certain height, need little care and their blossoms make them a favourite with the public. Many street cherries are bred to be sterile, so that nobody slips on the fallen fruit and brings a compensation case against the council. Other varieties produce inedible fruit; well, inedible to humans - the opportunistic birds love them. Lucky is the householder who moves into a house with an edible cherry in the garden.

Our native cherry, the gean or prunus avium, has simple, single white flowers that are a world away from some of the showy, chrysanthemum-style blossoms produced by Japanese varieties (see photo). The gean bears small, dark fruits; they're edible, but not as sweet as the orchard varieties. It grows wild in woodlands across the UK, where its blossom, appearing amid bleak winter branches, is one of the first signs of spring.

Please make a donation to the Red Cross's Japan Tsunami Appeal here.