This year we hosted a small cherry-blossom-viewing party, hanami, for the first time. I had come to think that the cherry tree in our garden (a swaying factor in our decision to buy this house) deserved a celebration. A dedicated party thrown in its honor – despite the tree being, most likely, a Kanzan. My skills in identifying sakura varieties are new and limited, and yet I am pretty sure this is what our tree is. Clusters of multi-petalled, chrysantemum-like, bright pink blossoms emerging just slightly ahead of foliage, bronze when young, and a vase-like shape of the tree itself – how much room for a mistake can there be?
As I look out at my tree in its full blossoming glory, the words of “Cherry” Ingram, aka “The Englishman Who Saved Japan’s Blossoms” (a book by Naoko Abe, published in February this year) are like muddy residue on my mind. Collingwood Ingram deeply disliked Kanzans. He thought them “a vulgar and garish variety”, resembling “made-up women of the towns”. Despite Naoko Abe’s sympathetic rendering, I grew to dislike the guy himself, a rather self-absorbed, privileged eccentric. But I was fascinated by Abe’s account of the cultural phenomenon that is sakura veneration in Japan. It is a comprehensive and very honest narrative, as Abe does not flinch away from the less salubrious parts of her nation’s history.
The Japanese cultivated cherry trees for their mesmerising blossom for over 2,000 years; in contrast with the Europeans who had little time for anything that did not bear edible fruit, at least until the 19th century. The first known hanami was held at the imperial court in 812 AD. Throughout the centuries, Japan’s “cherry landscape” was diverse and ever-changing, as hundreds of different types cross-pollinated in the wild, as well as got hybridised by man. Feudal lords, required during the shogunate period (1630s-1850s) to maintain residence at the court in Edo (modern day Tokyo), planted cherry trees native to their provinces, to remind them of home and to out-do their rivals. After Japan ceased its isolation from the world in the 1860s, a singular cherry variety came to the fore as an emblem of modernisation, revival and consolidation of the country – a somei-yoshino variety. It is easy to propagate, unfussy about soils, cheap and pretty, and it grows fast.
Quickly, somei-yoshino blossom became the symbol of the Japanese nationalistic fervour and its imperial ambitions. It was painted on the kamikaze planes attacking the American navy in the Pacific. This “Tokyo cherry” is now ubiquitous – as Abe writes, “by the beginning of the 21st century about four out of five cherry trees in urban areas in western Japan were somei-yoshino”. Offering hope for diversity, however, Abe concludes her book with an account of efforts, by the next generation of sakuramori (“cherry guardians”) around the world, to protect existing and create new cherry tree varieties.
I look at my cherry tree and am glad at least it’s not a somei-yoshino. I see Ingram’s point, though – Kanzan’s is a rather aggressive beauty, its blossoms “blowsy”, showy, unashamed. But still, I love this tree. I might have appreciated the Taihaku – that very special, large white blossomed variety that went extinct in Japan itself and which Ingram famously re-introduced to the country, having procured it from an obscure garden in England. Or the yama-sakura, the celebrated wild cherry growing in the mountains. Or the Hokusai, which grew next to Ingram’s home in Kent and which started his cherry obsession. I have never seen either and they don’t carry any special significance for me. This mature Kanzan in my small urban garden does. I observe it through the seasons, every day, at multiple moments and in many moods – those of mine and of the tree itself. I admire the carpet of golden and copper leaves in late October. I worry about it through the late autumn storms blasting in from the North Sea. Blackbirds announce the winter’s imminent end from its stark black branches in mid-February. I hold my breath as I look at the swelling buds in late March, on my personal blossom-prediction watch. It provides shade for my summer afternoons with the kids.
We are now officially in the “ha-zakura” stage – the petals have mostly fallen, covering the garden in pink snow, and the leaves have almost lost their bronze tinge. I don’t know the age of my tree – 30, 40 years? Flowering cherries are not long-lived, they say. There are several, though, in Japan itself, that are over a thousand years old. But then, whole communities are formed around and dedicated to looking after these millennials. I have this Kanzan cherry in my care. It is the tree that locates me in space and time. It waltzes me through the seasons and back to the inexorable cyclicality of it all – the knowledge that got buried deep under the unchanging fluorescence of my “office years”. It makes my morning coffee, and my life, taste richer. Perhaps our first hanami party was the birth of a new tradition, a furthering of connection with other people who care, too. This tree contributes to my longed-for and forever evasive sense of belonging. And, whatever Ingram had to say about its blossoms, I think they are spectacular.