Hanami – Cherry Blossom time …

March 20th, 2014 Sections: Plants
A cherry tree "hung with white along the bough"

A cherry tree “hung with white along the bough”

Although it sometimes doesn’t feel like it, (especially this year when Winter has held on doggedly … refusing to be banished and repeatedly revisiting us with cold spells), Spring is in the Air.

Spring and “springtime” refer to the season … and also to the 5 Rs  Rebirth, Rejuvenation, Renewal, Resurrection and Regrowth.  Apart from the lengthening days and the, (usually), warmer weather, one of the main signs of Spring is the appearance of buds and blossom as plants bust into a growth, sprouting new shoots.

For the recordThere are various technical definitions of spring, but local usage of the term varies according to local climate, cultures and customs.  Here, 1st March is considered to be the First Day of Spring – but when I was growing up back in England, we always considered the Vernal Equinox, (21st March), to mark the beginning of the season … and I suppose that I ought to point out that I am aware that in the Southern Hemisphere, Autumn is commencing.  

In some societies, the date of the start of the season is not fixed but depends on the the signs such as when the flowers start to bloom.  In Japan they have the ancient tradition of Hanami, (literally, so I am told, flower viewing – enjoying the transient beauty of flowers … but, traditionally, the term flower has a fairly restricted meaning and refers almost exclusively to cherry blossom – although older people sometimes prefer plum blossom).

From the end of March through to May, the weather bureau announces the “blossom forecast” and when the blossom appears, the Hanami season starts – involving parties held under the cherry tree and often lighting paper lanterns.  It’s a short season – lasting just a week to ten days before the bloom fade and drop off the branches.

Cherry trees are particularly renowned for the beauty of their blossom  and one of the few poems that I had to learn when I was school was “Lovliest of Trees …” by A.E. Houseman.  It helped that it was relatively short and lyrical … easily running off the tongue and easily understood.

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

Also, it helped that Houseman was considered a local lad.  He was born and brought up in the English country of Shropshire, (the poem comes from a collection called “A Shropshire Lad”), and although I was born and brought up in Worcestershire, Shropshire is a neighbouring county and I still have relatives living there.

Cherries, (Chereshoviy and Vishni – sweet and sour cherries respectively), and Cherry trees are very popular here.  They grow in Kyrgyzstan and I have several acquaintances, for example,  who have cherry trees in their gardens – and they are not just ornamental.  Cherries are to be seen on sale in many of the markets around the country.  Cherry flavoured fruit juice is also available, but as far as I can tell it seems to imported.  However, there are moves to develop the food processing industry based on local produced fruits, (canned, bottled, dried fruit,  jams and juices), so I suppose that there is a possibility that this may change.  

Cherries are the fleshy, stoned fruit of some of the plants belonging to the Prunus family of plants – which also includes almonds, apricots, nectarines, peaches and plums … all of which we have in Kyrgyzstan.  There are several subspecies of Prunus and it is thought that they are all related, probably descended from a common ancestor.

Although archaeology provides evidence of cherries having been consumed from Neolithic periods in parts of Europe, but the earliest description of cherry comes from about 300BC, when Theophrastus writes of a “large tree with round red fruit” – probably a “sweet cherry” from Anatolia – but, having said that, it seems that we don’t really know much about its origins and over the years there has been much speculation of where it really came from.  Unlike many other plants, however, it seems that no-one has really suggested a Central Asian origin for this particular plant.

Apparently early consumption was based on fruit harvested from “wild” plants, and specialized cultivation started quite late – about 1700AD.    It is a versatile plant and can adapt to almost conditions … The trees thrive in cooler temperatures with only moderate rain during the growing season – too much can damage the fruit, especially the softer, sweet cherry as as opposed to the hardy and more robust sour cherry.  As with the season for blossom, the growing season is quite short and cherries are often among the first fruit to be harvested.

Cherry trees are found throughout temperate zones of the world but most production comes from Europe, followed by North America, Australia and New Zealand … and parts of Asia – including here in Kyrgyzstan where several types of tree … or bush are to be found.  I say “bush” because not all cherry plants are tall trees under which one can wander or hold a party … some are low profile shrubs that grow low to the ground, for example, the Prunus fruticosa, (or European Dwarf Cherry) – a low shrub, growing only to somewhere between one and two meters tall … and although most cherry trees seem to thrive on mountain slopes, this one can grow in almost any conditions, but thrives best as a steppe plant rather than in forests.   

Production statistics for Kyrgyzstan (from knoeme.com)

Cherry Production statistics for Kyrgyzstan : 2001-2011 (from knoeme.com)

Kyrgyzstan does not appear to among the top producers in the world – Turkey seems to top the list of producers producing about 435,000 of the worlds total 2,240,000 tons of the fruit.  

Now, regular readers of my postcards will know that I have a fairly skeptical approach when it comes to statistics … and Cherries provide a very good example as to why this is so.

One set of historical data that came across seemed to suggest that Kyrgyzstan has about 2000 hectares dedicated to the crop under cultivation – although something strange seems to have happened in 2009 when the figure more than double that – producing something like 5000 tons of cherries a year.

As far as I can tell these are all Sweet Cherries – the FAO – the Food and Agriculture Organization –  don’t have any data for sour cherries grown in Kyrgyzstan.

However another source of data says that in 2011 Kyrgyzstan occupied 30th place in the producers’ rankings, with a harvest of about 9000 tons from the 5000 hectares under cultivation

The cherries on sale in the markets are probably specially cultivated but, as I said, I have acquaintances who have a tree in their gardens … and we also have wild cherries and one species has been added to the Red Data Book of Kyrgyzstan as an endangered species: the Prunoaflatunia V. Tkatsch, (which is also known as Prunus ferganica Linc. et Kost).

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As an aside: It’s a bit esoteric and specialized but in researching this postcard I came across this fascinating publication, “Origin and Dissemination of Prunus Crops: Peach, Cherry, Apricot, Plum and Almond“, by the American Pomological Society.  It may not be bedtime reading … but it’s packed with an amazing amount of detail and is well worth dipping into.

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