6 April 2018
After endless months of a bleak and grey winter, it is always a welcome relief to see trees suddenly explode with rich, dense clouds of blossom.
By Emma Atkins
It’s a particularly happy time in cities, when we are greeted by an overt display of nature.
Blossom is a life-saver for bees just coming out of hibernation, and fruiting blossoms provide food for birds. I love the eruption of life down my road, where splashes of colour liven up the usual monotony of brick and concrete, and during windier days, flurries of petals bury pavements and gardens in blankets of white and pink.
But why do some trees blossom, and do they have any other cultural significance than just indicating the arrival of spring?
Trees produce blossom or showy flowers to attract pollinators (mostly insects) so that seeds and fruit can be produced.
Most trees we see on our streets are from a group of flowering plants called ‘angiosperms’. These differ from the other main group of trees – ‘gymnosperms’ which typically have their seeds in cones e.g. pine, spruce and firs.
All angiosperms produce flowers but not all of these are showy, colourful or scented. Those trees which rely on wind pollination e.g. oak and ash, don’t need to invest in producing large colourful flowers but put more effort into producing large quantities of pollen that can be spread on the wind.
When I think of blossom, I immediately associate the word to the distinctive cherry blossom trees, although the definition of blossom is a cluster of flowers which can occur on any plant, including hawthorn, blackthorn and magnolia. Our traditional blossoming trees feature those from the Prunus genus, like plums and peaches, and the Malus genus, including crab-apples.
But we are going to take a closer look at the cherry blossom, as its historical and cultural significance is as dense as its clusters of flowers.
Alongside the chrysanthemum, cherry blossoms (or ‘sakura’) are the considered the national flower of Japan, which celebrates an annual cherry blossom festival, Hanami.
Hanami has roots in the 8th century whereby sakura was used to predict the year’s harvest and offerings were made to the spirits of landscape and nature.
The practice was adopted by the imperial court and then samurai society, and now the tradition mainly comprises of having outdoor parties under the blossom. As the Japanese fiscal year and school year begins in April, at the start of the blossoming period, hanami parties are often welcoming celebrations for the new beginning of work and school. There is a teasing proverb ‘Dumplings rather than flowers’ hinting at the priorities of the hanami party-goers in modern times.
Nevertheless, sakura are still considered as a symbol of the beauty and brevity of human mortality due to their short-lived existence. The symbolism of sakura feature often in Japanese art, manga, anime and film and you can find them on kimonos and other Japanese goods.
Sakura came to Europe in trading routes and many species have been cultivated in the UK over centuries, but our native blossoms are still very popular too.
Fun fact: The blossom tree featured in Disney’s Mulan is often mistaken for a cherry blossom but is actually a magnolia which is native to China. Hua Mulan translates to ‘magnolia flower’ and the flowers themselves are often nicknamed ‘the Mulan flower’.
Different species also prefer to bloom at different times. Autumnalis Rosea, the winter-flowering cherry, can blossom as early as November if conditions are mild. Blackthorn flowers in early to mid-spring, the Yoshino cherry in late March, wild cherry in April, and hawthorn in mid to late April.
The Natural History Museum did a survey of UK blossom trees in 2012 and discovered them from the very north in the Orkneys to the island of Guernsey in the south.
Blossoms are sensitive to climate and weather, so geographical location and local conditions means that blossom can flower at different times.
According to BBC Nature, the best places to find them in the North in great, decorative numbers are in Tatton Park and Dunham Massey.
Locations further afield include Arley Hall in Cheshire, Ness Botanic Gardens on the Wirral and the Laburnum Arch at Bodnant Garden, North Wales.