As the snow starts to melt and trees begin to stir, whispers of cherry blossoms will soon drift across bare branches armed with tiny little buds, waiting to burst forth. The cherry blossoms that come to mind- with five delicate, notched petals- tend to be the Yoshinos, which make up the bulk of the cherry trees in Washington D.C. Thousands of visitors congregate at the Tidal Basin like flocks of migratory birds each year, toting family members (sometimes bored), and on the day that we’d visited, pillows. We didn’t ask.
Back in New Haven, we had a variety of cherry trees ourselves. There were a couple of Okame cherry trees, two Sergeant cherry trees, and a weeping cherry tree with lovely pink cascading blossoms, all within a few metres of each other on Cedar Street. A number of Kwanzans lined a parking lot off Chapel Street, easy to miss unless you caught sight of what looked like pink fluff balls on the branches.
The first ones to bloom each year were always the Okame cherries. A hybrid between Prunus incisa and Prunus campanulata, the Okame cherry (Prunus x incamp ‘Okame’) was selected in 1947 and has small, bright pink flowers with distinct bright red star shaped calyces (sepals) and stems. It’s a relatively small tree in every way: it grows to a maximum of about 6m, its leaves are about 2.5-6.5cm long, and the flowers themselves, about 2-3cm across, are much smaller than that of Yoshinos. In the summer, its small round fruits add colour and contrast to the emerald green leaves, and in the autumn its foliage turns an attractive orange-red colour. It’s in general a round or oval tree, but its branches do tend to be layered, lending the tree a pleasing air of elegance. One thing I liked about the Okame was how dense its blossoms are. From afar, the tree looked like a stick of pink cotton candy, and evidently the birds felt the same. Sparrows would often frolic amongst its branches, sometimes picking off a blossom or two to play with.
Cedar Street was perfect for the Okame cherries, since the orientation of the street gave it enough sun and the buildings a little shade. The tree prefers fertile and well-draining but moist soil, although it also tolerates sandy, loamy, and heavy clay soils. One thing about the tree is that its habit of blooming early can make it a little susceptible to the unpredictability of the weather. They do require a cold winter to bloom (this is termed ‘vernalisation’), and can be susceptible to frost damage. The past year, we had a very warm winter, and a sudden cold snap right around the time the Okame cherries should be blooming. They didn’t quite like it very much, and all but skipped the flowering that year.
Many don’t seem to see plants as sentient beings, and reasonably so- plants don’t have a brain, or feelings as we understand them. But this lack of understanding of plants could stem from an ignorance of the way plants really work. Like animals, plants have their own way of responding to the environment: for example, the requirement for cold to induce flowering is dependent on the expression, or lack thereof, of a protein called FLC, which prevents flowering. Cold temperatures control the expression of another protein called VIN3, which modifies the DNA encoding FLC, preventing it from being expressed. When it warms up, the modification persists, allowing for memory of some sort. Additionally, plants have hormones too, with cute names like auxins, gibberellins, ethylene, abscisic acid, jasmonates, and many others, controlling all aspects of plant growth, survival, and reproduction.
So the next time you’re thinking of switching to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, remember: plants are no lesser than animals, so treat them with respect. That smell of fresh-cut grass you like is essentially the plants’ way of saying ‘ow’ and warning their fellowgrass of imminent danger- that’s a lot more social awareness and responsibility than many humans would ever be capable of showing.