Mixed Plate: Effort to prolong Japan’s cherry blossom season sparks heated debate

Mixed Plate

At the first whisper of warm spring air, cherry trees are roused out of dormancy, and explode with vibrant pastels.

Cherry-blossom viewing, or hanami as it is called in Japan, is a a time to gather and revel in sakura and sake.

“Many people gather under cherry trees, spread a picnic sheet, drinking and eating. On the other hand, some people stroll under the trees,” said Tokyo resident Reiko Kanari. “Daytime is pretty, but nighttime, a lot of places do a light-up, so it’s even prettier.”

After only six or seven days, the petals succumb to wind and gravity, and sakura season is over.

But maybe not. Botanists at Kyoto University have devised a way to manipulate the genetics of the cherry blossom tree, tricking its timetable to produce another season in the fall.

Researchers came up with the idea while developing a strain of rice that could be harvested twice a year.

Science to feed the belly could also be used to feed the eyes, they thought, as well as encourage tourism, which gets a big boost during sakura season.

“Cherry Blossom is our national treasure,” said Tokyo resident Sarah Yamada. “That’s why people like to see cherry blossoms during the season, so maybe that’s why.”

But the project has raised the hackles of sakura purists. The Hanami no Dentou wo Zettai ni Mamoru Kai, or people for the protection of hanami tradition, calls the new strain a sacrilege, a misguided use of science to create a mutant species.

Members vow to cut down the new trees wherever they’re planted.

“I think messing with nature is not a good thing. Just look how beautiful this is. Once a year is good thing,” said Hawaii visitor Gene Miyake. 

There is a way for both sides to win, however.

Other botanists argue the most ecologically sensible way to enjoy sakura is not to create two seasons, but to use science to stretch the genome sequencing. In other words, convince the tree to prolong its one blooming cycle beyond six days.

It’s a contentious debate throughout Japan, which is just as proud of traditional practices as it is of its technological advances, and now finds itself pitting one against the other.

The country’s agriculture ministry may have the final say, and that could take years.

In the meantime, tradition wins out with the cherry blossom celebrated for its heartbreaking brevity, its one intense burst of blush.

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