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In Japan, the cherry blossom (sakura) is synonymous with the arrival of spring. As the cherry trees come into bloom in parks and on the grounds of temples, people gather with their families, friends, and co-workers to view the flowers. This hanami celebration goes back at least a thousand years. It’s a festive occasion for partying and picnicking, with an underlying spiritual tradition. For Buddhists, the all-too-brief blooming period symbolizes the transience of life. And more practically, the Japanese originally used the flowers for divination to predict the rice harvest. The trees were home to Shinto spirit-deities (kami) that influenced agriculture, and could be propitiated by drinking rice wine (sake) in their honor.
Flowering cherry trees are also popular springtime attractions in American cities. A gift from Japan in 1912 first brought the trees to Washington, D.C. For two weeks, tourists visiting the National Cherry Blossom Festival almost outnumber special-interest lobbyists in the nation’s capital. Cherry blossom festivals are also held in New York and Philadelphia, along with Newark, New Jersey, and Macon, Georgia.
Los Angeles doesn’t have a comparable large-scale celebration of cherry blossoms. But Japanese flowering cherry trees can be found in parks and gardens around the Southland.
One collection of cherry trees is at the South Coast Botanic Garden on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. From 1929 until 1957, the site was an open-pit mine for diatomaceous earth. After the mine ran out of diatoms it became a “sanitary landfill.” By 1959 the garbage dump was nearly full. A citizens’ group persuaded the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to reclaim 35 hectares of the land as a garden. Planting began in 1961. The 3 million tonnes of garbage under the garden continues to produce natural gas used for generating electricity.
The Japanese flowering cherry trees are scattered individually and in small groups all around the garden, as merely one of over 2,000 plant species. This really isn’t the place for a raucous Japanese hanami celebration. A contemplative approach is in order here— I spent a sunny March afternoon wandering the garden’s trails in search of blooming cherry trees.
Studying the map handed out at the garden entrance, the “Sakura Meadow” seemed a promising place to find blossoms. This turned out to be a patch of grass perhaps suitable for a picnic, but with only a few disappointingly small trees. I had better luck near the amphitheater, and particularly along a trail marked “Arizona Crossing” that’s not shown on the map.
Japanese flowering cherry trees come in several species and varieties, with flowers in a range of colors from white to pale pink to bright pink. They’re grown only for their flowers; edible cherries come from other varieties of trees. In Japan, the preference is for white or pale varieties said to resemble clouds. The South Coast Botanic Garden’s cherry trees are, perhaps appropriately, the brightly-colored “Pink Cloud” variety of Prunus serrulata that originated in Southern California.