In days past, Japanese people enjoyed different types of cherry blossoms native to different regions throughout the country. The beautiful blossoms of the indigenous variety Yamazakura (Cerasus jamasakura) have been celebrated annually in the Kinki region of southern central Japan, which is home to Mount Yoshino, a famous cherry blossom viewing area from ancient times.
“Let me die in spring under the blossoming trees, let it be around the full moon of the month of Kisaragi,” wrote the poet Saigyō Hōshi, who loved the blossoms enough to leave behind the verse above and might have even seen them on his journeys.
More recently, the blooming cherry trees on the southern part of the Kii Peninsula of western Japan have been found to be of a different native variety from that of the well-known Yamazakura. This discovery, the first in a century, brings the number of wild cherry blossom species in Japan to 10. Found in the Kumano region of Mie and Wakayama prefectures, the new species has been named, Kumanozakura.
There are many cultivated species of blossoming cherry trees, such as Somei Yoshino, which were created through artificial breeding. However, according to the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute (FFPRI) headquartered in Tsukuba city, Ibaraki prefecture, there have only been nine previously confirmed species of wild blossoming cherry trees throughout the nation. The Kumanozakura is the first new species since the Ohshima-zakura was registered in 1915.
Toshio Katsuki, the 50-year-old leader of the Sakura Conservation Group at the FFPRI, said: “It was surprising that it was not known to be a new species, despite being in close proximity to people. It is well-suited as an ornamental species. I hope it becomes a new attraction for the region.”
Nationwide, cherry blossom predictions and the gradual opening of each region’s cherry blossom viewing season have begun to garner interest on the television news. As this year’s cherry blossom viewing season arrives, most often it is the Somei Yoshino cherry blossoms that are being enjoyed. This is to be expected since the variety makes up 80% of Japan’s blossoming cherry trees.
It can also be said that the instantaneous blooming and falling of the Somei Yoshino blossoms appeals to the Japanese aesthetic sensibility.
It is the gardeners of Somei village in what is today’s Komagome area of Tokyo who are considered to have been the first to sell the Somei Yoshino trees. The village was known as a flourishing center for gardening from the Edo Period to the Meiji Era. They marketed the trees under the name Yoshino-zakura, but the variety soon became known as the Somei Yoshino, after the town which made them popular. The variety spread rapidly throughout the nation, due to its fast growth and bountiful blossoms.
In recent years, these features have been identified as a weakness. Since all trees grown by grafting share the same genetic structure, disease spreads easily. There have also been increasing reports of damage by the red-necked longhorn beetle (Aromia bungii), which has been designated as an invasive alien species. As a result, the Somei Yoshino has suffered a decline in popularity across the country.
In the Kumano region, Kumanozakura seedlings have begun to be raised in an effort to replace the Somei Yoshino, which has been cultivated for over 60 years. It is certainly possible that the Kumanozakura’s strong pink cherry blossoms would become a tourist attraction. Indeed, the move away from exclusively Somei Yoshino cherry blossoms to other varieties could be something of a historical turning point.