Chris Packham, Michaela Strachan and James Wong are heading to Japan for a special edition of Springwatch. Their aim – to enjoy and investigate Japan’s iconic sakura.
But what is sakura?
Sakura is the Japanese term for cherry blossom – that most beautiful of Japanese flowers. In particular, the prunus serrulata, or Japanese cherry, is native to Japan as well as Korea and China.
In Japan it blooms between the end of March and early May, depending on location, with each tree’s blossoms only lasting for a couple of weeks. The first trees to flower are found in Okinawa in January, while those in Tokyo flower at the beginning of April.
The tree produces the pinky-white flowers which are so well-known from Japanese art. Sakura doesn’t just have immense cultural significance in Japan, it has a massive economic influence as well. Around sakura season, shop windows fill up with cherry blossom-adorned wares. And despite the word ‘cherry’ being part of the tree’s name, cultivated sakura often do not bear fruit – it is the all-important blossom for which they are prized.
Cherry blossom is so popular in Japan that there is even a tradition every spring called hanami – where people celebrate the flowers by having outdoor parties under the sakura’s boughs. This is something which is explored in Springwatch In Japan.
In Japanese culture, sakura are associated with the transient nature of life. This is because the fragile blooms only last for a very short time. This belief comes from the Buddhist notion of ‘mono no aware’, which is difficult to translate into English but which expresses a sensitivity to the impermanence of things, thus heightening an awareness of their beauty.
Interestingly, during Springwatch, James Wong discovers that the most popular Sakura is unable to fertilise future generations of trees - so all the blossom orchards are man-made. James visits Mount Yoshino, where there are 30,000 sakura trees. He even joins the group of dedicated sakura gardeners who ensure the trees’ survival by planting new specimens every year. The tree is cultivated by grafting it on to the roots of another variety.
Some of the best spots for sakura-watching in Japan include Goryokaku Fort Park in Hakodate City, Hokkaido, Kakunodate in Akita and two parks in Tokyo, Ueno Park and Shinjuku Gyoen Park.
If you want to experience the sakura season in full bloom but don’t want to venture across the world, Batsford Arboretum in Gloucestershire houses the National Collection of Japanese Flowering Cherries. Each year the trees put on a dazzling pink display between mid-April and mid-May.
To replicate the sakura experience in your own garden, the Royal Horticultural Society suggests prunus ‘Accolade’, prunus ‘Kojo-no-mai’, prunus ‘Shogetsu’ and prunus ‘Pink Perfection’ as possible varieties suitable for an English garden.
Photo credits: Paul Brown/REX/Shutterstock