The blossom on the cherry trees is one of the true delights of spring. In April and May clouds of beautiful delicate flowers ranging from the purest white to the most intense coral pinks adorn the trees in vast numbers, a truly magical and breathtaking sight.
Their beauty has much cultural significance the world over, but is perhaps most commonly associated with the rich cultural heritage of Japan.
Between the months of March and May, the blossom on ornamental cherries or Sakura as it is known in Japan, is celebrated widely through the annual festival of Hanami. The word Hanami literally means to view flowers, and it is the ancient custom of picnicking under the blooming cherry trees. The practice is thought to have begun in the Nara period of around 710 -794 with the elite of the Imperial Court. Soon the whole of society down to the common people were joining in the feasting, drinking and celebrating.
Today the festivities of Hanami are as popular in Japan as ever, and a major tourist attraction for many places. Rather like the sun lounger etiquette around the pool on your holidays, in the more popular areas rugs are laid on the ground early in the morning to reserve places for friends and family. Some sights are so in demand that there are fierce competitions for the best spots!
Yoshinoyama, Mount Yoshino, has for centuries been thought of as one of the best places to view the cherry blossom. The whole mountain, to the valleys below are covered by approximately 30,000 cherry trees of different varieties, creating a truly magnificent spectacle.
Shinjuku Gyoen Park in Tokyo is another popular and stunning place to enjoy Hanami, with over a thousand cherry trees of many varieties, including some very early and late flowering cultivars meaning there is a lovely long season to enjoy the blossom.
The Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura has a 500 meter long row of cherry trees lining a pathway, creating a spectacular blossom tunnel, while Kema Sakuranomiya Park in Osaka boasts nearly 5000 cherry trees which line the Okawa River for kilometers.
Types of Cherry Blossom
There are myriad varieties of Japanese ornamental cherry, many of which are available to grow here in the UK. Being able to identify them is seen as an important part of enjoying the Sakura.
The ornamental cherries are known as Sato Zakura, while the wild mountain cherries are known as Yama Zakura. The most popular is Prunus x yedoensis, the Yoshino cherry. It is widely planted throughout the country and is thought to be the original Sato Zakura.
Prunus ‘Kanzan’ is another of the most popular cherries grown in Japan. It is a beautiful ‘yaezakura’ variety, meaning it has more than five petals. Its bright pink frills of flowers are displayed beautifully against its coppery spring foliage. With a lovely upright habit that fills and rounds with maturity, it grows to around 8 meters.
Prunus ‘Ukon’ is a variety prized for its highly unusual creamy yellow flowers. These bring a delightful contrast to the mass of pinks and whites when seen in their incredible vast numbers in parks such as Shinjuku Gyoen in Tokyo. It grows to around 8 meters, and has a lovely spreading umbrella-shaped habit, making it a gorgeous specimen tree.
Prunus ‘Kiku-shidare-zakura’ is a small weeping variety with delicate pompoms of pink flowers drooping from its graceful branches. It’s name means Chrysanthemum cherry in Japanese, due to the pointy petals of its flowers. It is a fantastic ornamental tree for a small garden as it only reaches to around 4 meters when fully grown.
Weeping cherries are very common and much loved in Japan where in parks they are often planted by streams or pools, so their elegant branches bow to meet the water to create enchanting displays. Large numbers of these cherries can be seen at Heian Shrine in Kyoto.
If you are feeling inspired and eager to enjoy Hanami a little closer to home, Brogdale Farm in Kent is home to the world's largest collection of fruit trees and plants. With the collection including 323 varieties of fruiting cherries and 42 varieties of ornamental cherry, for the last few years they have been holding their own Hanami festival. Here visitors can enjoy a little taste of Japan, with Japanese snacks, and a guided tour of the orchards, followed by a picnic under the cherry blossom…an idyllic way to spend a spring afternoon!