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All about Somei-Yoshino

Did you know that Somei-Yoshino cherry trees originated in Toshima? This page tells you all about Somei-Yoshino cherry trees.

Are you familiar with Somei-Yoshino cherry trees?

This page tells you all about Somei-Yoshino cherry trees.

Did you know that the variety of cherry tree known as Somei-Yoshino originated in Toshima?

Gardeners in Komagome started selling these cherry trees sometime between the end of the Edo Period and the early Meiji Period. The trees came to be called Somei-Yoshino, with Somei—the name of one of Komagome’s districts—used as a prefix to differentiate them from the wild cherry trees of Nara’s Mount Yoshino.

From Edo Period documents and woodblock prints, we know that many gardeners worked in this region. The Ito Ihei family, one of the most famous, had cultivated plants since the early Edo Period. The Ito family—which passes down the name Ihei from generation to generation—is believed to have inhabited the Toshima District in Somei, Kami-Komagome (to the northeast of today’s Somei Cemetery) since the beginning of the seventeenth century.

Komagome 6-chome’s Saifukuji Temple was the chosen temple of Somei gardeners since the Edo Period, and the local people worshipped there as well as at Somei Inari Shrine, where their guardian deity resided. The city of Tokyo has designated the Ito Ihei family burial plot an historic site.

Buko Sanbutsu Shi, published in 1824 by herbalist and natural history scholar Tsunemasa Iwasaki, describes well-known locations for flowers in Edo and its surrounding areas. Somei is mentioned as an area where gardeners produced primroses, azaleas and chrysanthemums, indicating that it was a leading horticultural center in Japan from the Edo Period through the Meiji Period.

What kind of cherry tree is the Somei-Yoshino?

The Somei-Yoshino cherry tree is said to be a cross between the Oshima and Edo Higan cherry cultivars, and reportedly was named “Somei-Yoshino” after gardeners in Somei (now Komagome in Toshima) sold them under the name “Yoshino cherry trees” all around Japan from the end of the Edo Period through the Meiji Period.

Notes

  • Oshima cherry tree
    Found around the Izu Peninsula and Islands and Boso Peninsula. The Oshima cherry tree produces pure white flowers with a strong fragrance, and blooms after vivid green new leaves start sprouting. The leaves, which are large and smooth, are used to wrap sakuramochi confectioneries. Many cherry cultivars are descended from this variety.
  • Edo Higan cherry tree
    Found in the mountainous regions of Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu and South Korea’s Jeju Island. The Edo Higan cherry tree produces pale white and pink flowers and is very hardy and long-lived, so it is familiar nationwide for large, old trees that are hundreds of years old.
    Many of these have been designated natural monuments, including the Ishiwarizakura in Morioka, the Yamataka Jindaizakura in Yamanashi, and the Neodani Usuzumizakura in Gifu.

I’ve heard that the story above might not be completely correct.

According to research published by Chiba University professor Ikuo Nakamura and others in 2007, genetic analysis showed that Somei-Yoshino cherry trees were a cross between the Oshima variety and the Komatsu Otome cultivar of the Edo Higan cherry.
Although there were also theories that the Somei-Yoshino was a natural cross, this meant there was an even greater possibility that it had been produced through a cross between cultivars at Somei, a gardening mecca.

Who gave the tree the name Somei-Yoshino?

The most likely theory is that Somei gardeners, who were selling trees under the name Yoshino cherry, put Somei in front of the name to avoid confusion with the wild cherry trees from Nara’s Mount Yoshino, which had been called Yoshino from ancient times.
Yorinaga Fujino (of the Natural History Bureau, today’s Tokyo National Museum) made the first reported reference to the Japanese name in issue 92 of Nihon Engeikai Zasshi (Japan Horticultural Society Journal) of 1900, proposing that Somei-Yoshino be used to avoid confusion, and that he obtained consent.
Additionally, Imperial University professor Jinzo Matsumura applied the botanical name (world standard nomenclature) Prunus.yedoensis Matumura in 1901.

What are the characteristics of Somei-Yoshino cherry trees?

Somei-Yoshino cherry trees have single, five-petaled flowers and grow very quickly, spreading to more than twenty meters horizontally in around twenty years, so locations can become known for Somei-Yoshino rather quickly.
Moreover, they bloom before their leaf buds sprout, entirely covering trees with clusters of flowers, and their large size makes them suited for cherry blossom viewing parties.
Somei-Yoshino cherry trees were planted in large numbers nationwide to commemorate war victories and in connection with war damage reconstruction projects. They need to be planted in particularly sunny locations to bloom well.

I heard that Somei-Yoshino cherry trees are susceptible to disease. Is that true?

Turkey tail mushroom infestation (upper trunk)

Witch’s broom

 

Fungi that cause trunk rot easily penetrate Somei-Yoshino cherry trees via broken or cut branches. Because the trunk rots from the inside when the trees exceed fifty years of age, it has led to the theory that Somei-Yoshino cherry trees have a sixty-year life span.
However, what is reportedly Japan’s oldest Somei-Yoshino cherry tree—located in Hirosaki, Aomori Prefecture, and nearly 130 years of age—has been kept alive using techniques for pruning apple trees, and the quality of care is a deciding factor in a tree’s life.

Is it true that all Somei-Yoshino cherry trees originated from a single tree?

Unlike wild cherry trees, Somei-Yoshino cherry trees cannot be grown from seeds.
Instead, they are propagated using grafts on Oshima cherry tree rootstock (the portion that becomes the roots).
This is why all Somei-Yoshino cherry trees have the same characteristics and have become the standard for tracking the northward march of blooming trees, giving us a sense of the spring season.

What is its relationship with Toshima Ward?

As noted above, Komagome in Toshima City is the Somei-Yoshino cherry tree’s likely birthplace.
The Somei-Yoshino cherry tree was also designated Toshima’s city tree on August 7, 1973, and its blossom as Tokyo’s flower on June 28, 1984.
Toshima City opened Somei-Yoshino Sakura-no-Sato Park and Mon-to-Kura-no-Aru Hiroba (Warehouse and Gate Square) on March 28, 2009.
This location is adjacent to Komagome Elementary School and near Saifukuji Temple and Somei Inari Shrine, which were the center of the gardeners’ village during the Edo Period.
Many cherry trees have been planted to form a cherry tree corridor. We await your visits to these parks.

I’ve heard there have been moves locally to protect and raise Somei-Yoshino cherry trees. Is that so?

The Komagome area was scorched during the air raids of World War II, and many Somei-Yoshino cherry trees burned to the ground. Local volunteers planted saplings right after the war, however, and the ones that were carefully nurtured have become today’s rows of trees.
Somei-Yoshino cherry trees end up being short-lived if people do not look after them, so please show your care for them even when they are not in bloom.

A seedbed has been set up in a corner of Somei-Yoshino Sakura-no-Sato Park to raise Somei-Yoshino cherry trees that will be sent nationwide to promote Toshima as the birthplace of Somei-Yoshino cherry trees. The Somei-Yoshino Research Association spearheaded this initiative and obtained grafts from Saifukuji Temple, Somei Inari Shrine and Komagome Elementary School. They grafted these branches on three occasions—March 7, 2009, March 6, 2010 and March 2, 2013—and as of May 2017, there are 96 new saplings.

These saplings—from the birthplace of Somei-Yoshino cherry trees—are shifted to the seedbed after being raised in flowerpots for a short period. Let’s all work on spreading and raising Toshima City’s tree—the Somei-Yoshino cherry tree.