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Cherry blossom time

Early blooming Higan cherries (Prunus x subhirtella), Seward Park. Credit: Jackie Hiltz

Long ago, I lived in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. I taught English and ate tako-yaki from street vendors. I scrubbed and soaked at the public bathhouse and sat cross-legged in a Zen Buddhist temple. In spring I walked under a canopy of cherry blossoms along the Philosopher’s Path.

My Japanese students and friends would sigh at the mention of the ornamental flowering cherries, or sakura. In their tradition, these flowers represent impermanence. The delicate blooms are achingly beautiful but don’t last long. A pounding spring rain or sudden gust of wind can carpet the sidewalk in shades of pink and white. Even without any meteorological drama, the petals scatter all too quickly.

Washington, D.C. aside, Seattle might be the premier place in the country to ponder and admire cherry blossoms. (See a viewing guide on the right.) From early to mid-spring the city blooms sakura just about everywhere; and the season lasts almost twice as long as in Japan. Many of the flowering cherries found in public spaces in Seattle were planted to cultivate and commemorate friendship and economic ties between Japan and the Northwest. "Cherry diplomacy," a trend launched a century ago in D.C.’s Tidal Basin, gained momentum as the beauty of these blossoms charmed Americans.

Seward Park in southeast Seattle benefited greatly from this cultural phenomenon — as local Paul Talbert points out in his well-researched book, "Cherries, Lanterns, and Gates: Japanese and Japanese-American Cultural Gifts in Seattle’s Parks."

In 1929, Japanese delegates on their way to the London Naval Conference planted three flowering cherries in the circle garden at the entrance to Seward Park. These saplings were the first of over 3,500 cherry trees donated by the Japanese Association of North America in 1929-31. The donated trees included several hundred Kanzan cherries from a nursery in Yakima, and 3,000 other varieties from Columbia Nursery in the Rainier Valley. They were also planted at Green Lake, then home to a community of Japanese farmers and florists, along Lake Washington Boulevard and in other locations throughout the city.

Today, three cherries continue to grace the circle garden at Seward Park. These cherries, a Botan Zakura, an Ichiyo, and a birchbark cherry (Prunus serrula), likely replaced the originals but serve as a reminder of cherry diplomacy. In the park a few gnarled, ancient Kanzans remain like sentinels guarding old traditions. But they are few. Most have been replaced after likely succumbing to brown rot — or World War II anti-Japanese sentiment.

World War II suspended enthusiasm for the Japanese flowering cherry. But in 1950 Seattle received 2,000 cherry trees from the United Nations Association of Japan, Some were earmarked for Seward Park. Many of the trees around Seward Park (and along Lake Washington Boulevard) today, however, were a bicentennial gift sent by Japanese Prime Minister Miki Takeo in 1976 to reaffirm the historic ties between Japan and the Northwest — and perhaps to honor his personal connection to Seattle.

Miki had attended the University of Washington in the 1930s and washed dishes at the Maneki Restaurant in Nihonmachi, now the International District. The dedication and planting of a few of these 1,000 trees on the lakeshore at Orcas Street, along with a stone monument and three stone lanterns donated by various Japanese cultural organizations, initiated the first Seattle Cherry Blossom and Japanese Cultural Festival now held at the Seattle Center. 

Japanese flowering cherries belong to the wide-ranging genus Prunus, which also includes flowering and fruiting plum, other fruit trees such as apricot and peach, and even English laurels. There are many, many species, varieties, and cultivars of sakura, easily identified as cherry (and not plum) by the horizontal “freckles,” or lenticels, on the trunk.

Flowering cherries grow in an assortment of shapes — weeping, upright, umbrella-like, funnel-shaped and broadly oval. The flowers open as single (five petals), semi-double (10-20), double (25-50) or chrysanthemum (over 100). They bloom in hues of pink and white, and at different times during the spring. They can be maddeningly difficult to identify. Wybe Kuitert’s book "Japanese Flowering Cherries" is a good guide for navigating the labyrinth of identification. 

The first to bloom in Seward Park is the Higan, or spring, cherry (Prunus x subhirtella). It features delicate single pink flowers arranged in clusters of two or three. Several Higan cherries complement the stone monument and lanterns of 1976 at Orcas Street. Next to bloom are the pale-pink to white Yoshino cherry (Prunus x yedoensis) and its cultivar ‘Akebono’ (Prunus x yedoensis ‘Akebono’). You can find these by the beach parking lot and in the grassy area around the main entrance. The Yoshino is the signature cherry in the UW Quad and in Washington, D.C.’s Tidal Basin.

Last to bloom is the splashy, double-flowered, bright pink Kanzan (P. serrulata ‘Kanzan’). Named after a sacred mountain in China, it is widely planted in Seward Park and along Lake Washington Boulevard. Also blooming around the same time is the beautiful frilly-flowered Shogetsu (P. serrulata ‘Shogetsu’). A few fine specimens can be found across the street from the Higan cherries and Bicentennial lanterns on Orcas Street. These herald the dwindling days of sakura season in Seward Park.

As the last of the cherry blossoms drop and make way for the transition to green leaves, I can’t help but sigh. When I lived in Kyoto, my brain grasped the truth of sakura transience. It is only after passing into mid-life among an abundance of flowering cherry trees in Seattle that my heart too begins to understand what the Japanese have felt for centuries.

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