THE BLOG
04/16/2013 01:52 pm ET Updated Jun 16, 2013

Cherry Blossoms: History Behind the Bloom

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When talking with my Milanese friend recently, she was describing her afternoon of sitting in the park. Hanami, she said, evoking the Japanese concept of picknicking under cherry trees to describe exactly what she meant. I got it.

That the Japanese have a specific word devoted to describing this celebration of flower viewing is indicative of their reverence for the process: one that's centuries old, and one that's steeped in history. And, with cherry blossoms blooming everywhere from Milan to Japan to Boston, it's only fitting that a closer look be taken at the background behind the bloom.

While it is widely believed that cherry blossoms originated somewhere in Eurasia -- Himalayas, scholars speculate -- cherry blossoms immigrated to Japan some time several thousand years ago and spread throughout the country before the prehistoric age. Now, more than 300 varieties of the sakura -- or cherry blossom -- trees exist in Japan due to centuries of hybridization.

Early records show that celebrating the sakura became popular during the Heian Period (794 to 1185), when emperors and members of the Imperial Palace began hosting feasts under the blooming branches of the tree. The celebrations made their way down through the samurai to the common people, and the parties became very popular with all members and classes of Japanese society. Centuries later, the tree remains a sacred important cultural symbol in the country, and the traditions largely unchanged.

It cannot be overstated that in Japan, the sakura is serious business -- even government business. Each year, the blossom forecast is analyzed, predicted and released to the public by the Japan Meteorological Agency. But why are the blossoms so significant? Symbolism runs the gamut, but is all technically related to the blossoms' relatively short lifespan of two weeks. Here are some examples:

1. Fighting men of Japan -- samurai, soldiers, etc. -- for whom early death was a hallmark of their profession are known to have celebrated the sakura for symbols of a life that was short and powerful

2. They are called as representation of a woman's beauty: blossoming for a small amount of time before retreating

3. As the Japanese school year begins in April, a time of heavy blooming in mainland Japan, the blossoms are often seen as a sign of beginning a new stage of life

Today, the first cherry blossom trees begin to bloom in early February, on the subtropical Japanese island of Okinawa, where both my friend and I grew up. Thousands of people fill parks to meet and picnic under trees throughout the day and into the night, and lanterns are often hung to illuminate the trees at night. The bloom moves north, and the trees are celebrated in full in mainland Japan.

Though most widely celebrated in Japan, hanami celebrations have become popular around the world in recent decades. Some of the most popular cherry blossom celebrations in the United States occur in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Macon, Boston and Brooklyn. Here's hoping you get out and enjoy them this spring -- perhaps, even, with a little more history than before.

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