Japanese Flowering Cherry12. Japanese Flowering Cherry

Cherry Trees (Sakura – Japanese kanji: 桜 or 櫻; katakana: サクラ; hiragana: さくら)

Cultural Significance

Cherry trees have an important cultural significance in Asia, especially in Japan. “The beauty of the cherry blossom is a potent symbol equated with the evanescence of human life and epitomizes the transformation of Japanese culture throughout the ages.”

In Japan, evidence suggests that the Kwanzan has been actively cultivated for its beauty since the 15th century.  In medieval Japan, the Warrior Class (Samurai) used the cherry blossom to symbolize the essence of the Samurai.  The cherry flower was beautiful, complex and short lived.  Unlike other flowers, which discolor, wither and die, the cherry flower sheds its petals at the height of their beauty.  To the samurai, this quality represented a glorious death in battle, before reaching old age. 

In the late 19th century, many prominent Americans became interested in the beauty of the varieties of cherry tree.  Asian cherries were first imported for personal gardens.  In 1912, American writer, early-conservationist and first woman to serve on the board of National Geographic, Eliza Skidmore, arranged a donation of over 3,000 cherry trees of different varieties as a gift from the Japanese government.  The intended plantation was along the Potomac in Washington D.C.  Since then, Washington D.C. has celebrated the blooming of the cherry trees with a variety of festivals and ceremonies.  The bloom period of the cherry tree is considered by some to be the unofficial end of the winter season.

Native Ecosystems

This tree is native to China, Korea and Japan.  The wild variety is a less refined version of those used as ornamentals.  Wild trees typically grow in secondary forests, clustered at the foothills of mountains.  The term “Kwanzan” is an outdated spelling of the word “Kanzan” which roughly translates to “bordering mountain.” The native, wild variety grows much taller, reaching heights of 75 feet. Native Kwanzan has perfect flowers, those which contain both male and female parts that give rise to fruits (cherries).  These native trees are rarely seen outside of their indigenous ecosystems.  The cultivars derived from wild cherry trees do well in full sunlight or partial shade.  They enjoy clay, sandy or loam soils that are fairly well drained.  The cultivars are considered short living, usually having a lifespan of only 20 years.  They are notoriously rife with pests, including aphids, spider mites and tent caterpillars. Kwanzans support a variety of diseases and mildews.  Through infection and sterilization, Kwanzans have little potential for invasiveness.

Beneficial Uses

While the tree bears no fruit, the fruit of other cultivars have many associated health benefits.  In Asian folk medicine, the cherries proved beneficial for a variety of ailments including: heart ailments, dropsy, toothache and gout-pain.  Modern analysis of the fruit has revealed strong antiviral, antioxidative properties. Korean studies champion the cherries as a valuable addition to any diet.

Biological Characteristics

The brilliant and showy Japanese flowering cherry (Prunus serrulata “Kwanzan”) is a popularly planted non-native tree species.  In the spring, its flowers glow with light purple and pink highlights that beautify any landscape.  The “Kwanzan” cultivar is the most cold-hardy of the available varieties, making it a popular choice for northeastern forests and landscapes.  While the bloom of the “Kwanzan” is unmistakably beautiful, this particular species is rife with pests, which attack the tree and shorten its life span.  The Japanese Kwanzan usually grows in a vase or teardrop shape, with a maximum height of 20-25 feet. 

The Japanese flowering cherry is a member of the Family Rosaceae, commonly known as the Rose Family.  Keep this in mind while viewing the characteristics of the tree, which exemplify the phenotypic similarity at the family level.  The bark is a rusty brown with an almost glossy paper look.  This look is augmented by lateral blister-looking fissures known as “lenticels.”  Lenticels help the tree exchange gasses with its surroundings, particularly oxygen.  New leaves are bronze-tipped, turning yellow or green and eventually a deep bronze in the fall.  Leaves are simple and opposite, with a serrated margin. They are oval in shape 2-5” in length and 1-2.5” in width.  

The flowers of the Kwanzan are highly clustered and occur at many points on the branches.  In early April, buds give rise to “double flowers,” which are robust and healthy looking.  The flowers have many petals which huddle together, creating a swirling pinkish-purple work of art, set against a white canvas.  The flowers may appear before leaves or without them, making the flowers even more prominent.  Unfortunately, for all their display, the flowers do not give rise to fertile seeds as Kwanzan trees are sterile.  Propagation of this cultivar of Japanese cherry tree is by cloning only.  The flowers are either fragrant or non-fragrant, depending on the individual tree.    Occasionally Kwanzans may produce a small black cherry, which is technically a drupe.