Cherry Bomb: A History of Our Local Bloom

These flowers put the cherry on top of an annual spring ritual.

(brainchildvn | Flickr)

Mother Nature couldn’t care less that the 50th anniversary of Northern California’s Cherry Blossom Festival does not begin until the weekend of April 8-9. She put the cherry blossoms in full bloom right after St. Patrick’s Day this year, and their brief peak period continues this week with a dazzling array of pink-and-white flowers exploding on the branches of San Francisco’s cherry trees.

These flowering trees are indeed cherry trees, but they’re not the kind that young George Washington chopped down in his fabled “not gonna lie” incident. Ours are a Japanese Kwanzan variety technically known as the prunus serrulata. Introduced to North America in the early 1900s, the Kwanzans have thrived in the Bay Area’s climate for about 120 years now.

“Historically, they have been pretty tough against diseases,” says Doug Wildman, deputy executive director of Friends of the Urban Forest. He notes that the recent drought and warm winters have affected the Kwanzan trees’ flower and leaf output, but says this year’s rains have greatly benefited them. “They have bounced back. We do think this year will be awfully nice, full leaves and the blooms that always come before,” he says.

There are nearly 1,400 prunus serrulata trees on streets citywide, according to the latest San Francisco street tree census. This variety is far more common than the other types of cherry trees here, like bing or black cherry and another Japanese variety called Akebono.

The most celebrated San Francisco cherry blossoms are in Japantown, but there are a few other magnificent patches across the city. LucasFilm’s Digital Arts Center in the Presidio has a fabulous array in full bloom, while the Sunset has huge outposts on 24th, 26th, and 27th avenues. Golden Gate Park’s Japanese Tea Garden still has a collection of the trees, and was responsible for originally bringing the species here.

After the 1894 World’s Fair in San Francisco, the Tea Garden was moved from the fair to a permanent home in Golden Gate Park. The garden’s caretaker ordered 1,000 of the Kwanzan cherry trees, the first known batch to arrive in San Francisco, whose gorgeous, pink-and-white flowers are still referred to by their Japanese name, sakura.

“The sakura budding, bloom, and wilt represents the metaphor of a life,” the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival executive committee member Greg Viloria-Oshita tells SF Weekly. “At its full bloom, the sakura beauty brings happiness to people. At full bloom, one’s life should bring the greatest impact to people in their own way. Appreciating the sakura in this way will make us reflect on our own lives.”

Friends of the Urban Forest has restocked Japantown with some new Kwanzan cherry trees in recent years, as they have relatively short lifespans compared to many tree species. “What we see is about 25 years on the sidewalks and then we reed to replace them,” Wildman says. “In parks, they can really live a lot longer.”

Wildman also notes that many of the blooming trees that you see right now are not cherries. The plum trees that bloomed in February look very similar, as do the flowers of some San Francisco apple trees. “The apples are blooming right now,” he says. “They’re a magenta-pink.”

But the cherry blossoms have a special place on San Francisco’s calendar and its inclusive international identity.

“It’s culturally significant, and that’s another value in these trees,”  Wildman says of Japantown’s annual Kwanzan tree celebration. “How fun is that, to use species that are from their homeland?”

The 50th annual Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival runs April 8-9 and April 15-16, at Japantown’s Peace Plaza. The event is free and open to the public, and the full schedule and parade information are available at sfcherryblossom.org.

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