Updated: Feb 26, 2019
Cherry blossom trees, or sakura, are definitely a major symbol of Japan. But from having visited a countless number of Japanese gardens in Japan I find it odd that I can barely remember seeing any cherry trees in them. After having worked with a few different Japanese garden teachers I began to ask more questions and research Japanese garden plants.
So, are cherry trees used in Japanese gardens? The answer is no, or at least very rarely. Although the cherry blossom is a major symbol of Japan, and there are huge blossom viewing parties that take place in spring, the cherry blossom tree is not a Japanese garden tree.
This may come as a surprise to many people, I know it did to me when I first learned this. There is even an abundance of misinformation in English about the tree being used in Japanese gardens, mainly because we are clinging to symbols of what we think is “Japanese.” You can also find many pictures of western Japanese gardens that do include them, but traditionally they are not a Japanese garden tree.
There are a few reasons why the cherry tree does not make for a good addition to the Japanese garden.
1) Seasonality of the Cherry Tree
A Japanese garden is designed to be viewed and experienced throughout all 4 seasons in Japan. The problem with the Cherry tree is that is blooms big and beautifully for only a few weeks out of the entire year. Beyond that it is fairly bushy with green leaves and there is nothing particularly attractive about it. All of the Japanese garden elements need to come together to bring about an experience that will last throughout the year.
Similarly, this is why you don’t see many annuals planted in Japanese gardens. Evergreen trees and shrubs have a continuous beauty to them that better fits the garden.
If you are looking for a flowering tree I would lean toward dogwoods or flowering ume plums and crabapples that have more interesting trunk shapes as well.
2) Cherry Trees are Not Able to be Pruned
The Japanese garden is a highly pruned and well-maintained garden space. Trimming branches to help guide a desired shape, thinning out the leaves to give it an airy or aged look is often the goal. With pine trees and maples this is all fine and dandy, but cherry trees do not take well to pruning.
There is even a saying in Japanese, “Only and idiot would prune his cherry blossom tree.” The cherry blossom cannot take the pruning of branches because it is very susceptible to disease. Garden professionals understand this and that is one of the reasons cherry trees are avoided.
3) Cherry Trees in General are Quite Weak
Cherry Trees are very fragile when it comes to their surrounding elements. Air pollution, which is a growing problem in Japan and everywhere lately, has damaged many cherry trees because they have a fairly weak immune system. Similarly, you won’t see them near the oceans and coasts because the salty ocean breeze damages them also.
4) Diseases Spread Easily From One Tree to Another
Mold and termites have been known to wipe out many trees at one time. This is something that the famous Yoshino Mountains in Nara, which are covered in cherry blossom trees, is having to deal with now. Some of the trees begin to rot from mold and others are literally getting eaten by termites that then spread to the surrounding trees quite easily.
The Few Exceptions
Of course a few exceptions do exist, but in general I would aim to avoid the use of sakura in your garden. There is a Japanese garden technique called Shakkei, or borrowed scenery. I have seen a few Japanese gardens or rock gardens that have a wall behind them defining the garden space, but in the background they are making use of the cherry blossom view off in the distance.
Planting one on the other side of the wall or farther of could have a nice effect of the overall view and not directly affect the garden within the walls. If the cherry tree is highlighted too much though in the background you have to take into account the distraction it could pose if it was stood alone. Nestled amongst a few other trees could be a good fit though.
For symbolic effect I have also seen gardens that feature cherry trees at the entrance gate and not necessarily in the main garden. Again, this could be a nice feature to have at a distance from the main garden.
Most of the time you see cherry blossoms trees they are planted along rivers or in large parks. These are areas that the government or prefecture takes care of because there really is little maintenance required for the trees and they are planted in places that they want people to gather. Some of these parks may also create a Japanese garden somewhere, with boulders and streams, but these are often not as well maintained as many professional gardens that you can easily find around.
Temples and Shrines may also feature cherry blossoms. It is a very symbolic tree and if they can create an area that can draw a crowd then becoming a tourist spot, with light-ups at night, will also benefit them in popularity. Many of these light-ups also charge a fee to stroll through the temple grounds during the short season.
Cherry Blossom Trees as a Part of Japanese Culture
I used to live in Nara, so I have an affinity towards the area and its rich history and many beautiful landscapes. A scene of the Yoshino Mountains in Nara covered with varieties of pink and white cherry blossoms truly is an unexplainably beautiful site.
Watching the blossoms reflect off the river in Tsukigase is like watching a beautiful oil painting come to life. However, scattered all throughout Nara are equally magnificent lone sakura trees that should not be forgotten. Many local temples and shrines have their own sakura, standing proudly all by themselves.
One of the most famous traditional songs in Japan is “Sakura, Sakura.” Originally it was called “Saita Sakura” (“Blooming Cherry Blossoms”) and was written as a koto piece for children. Today its beautiful melody is performed regularly on the shakuhachi bamboo flute as well. I once performed this song on shakuhachi at Myouhouji Temple in Yoshino. Everyone seemed to enjoy the traditional pieces, but it wasn’t until I played this familiar song, and everyone sang along with it, that I realized the power of unification this song holds.
Because of it being known as truly representing Japanese culture and aesthetics there have even been calls to replace the current controversial national anthem (Kimi ga yo) with the beloved “Sakura, Sakura.” An interesting feature of this song, not unlike many traditional Japanese art works, is that there is no accredited original composer.
I find this cultural practice quite interesting because it shows how, in the past, the creator of the work was of less importance. Many artists believed that they were merely an instrument from which their art flowed effortlessly from nature or some spiritual force. Many unnamed great works of pottery and calligraphy remain today for the simple reason that they were and still are regarded as something beautiful, not merely because someone’s name or stamp was left on it.
Similarly, the artists realized that they were actually only a small part of something much greater than one individual. They had a place within nature and amid a series of interdependent relationships within the school rooted in a particular musical tradition. There was no need to place a value on something by putting your name on it.
Very similar to those lone cherry trees, these artists, poets, and musicians were never really alone. With their deep roots, they both rely on other elements in nature.
Hanami (Flower Observing)
Stemming from an old ritual of offering sake at the foot of the cherry trees to the gods who abided in the trees, the hanami (flower observing) parties of today are an important part of social bonding in Japan. However, there is a saying: “hana yori dango” (“dumplings rather than flowers”). This reflects the feeling that many people are more concerned with eating and drinking than actually appreciating the flowers.
One thing that people tend to forget is that in the past--when poets, philosophers, and commoners alike got together for this event--they were actually pondering the great significance of this flower in relation to life and impermanence. I hope everyone takes a little time and reflects on how fragile our existence is here. It may sound dark, but by observing our evanescence and by realizing that just like the cherry blossoms we too will all be blown away with a slight gust of wind, we can better appreciate and enjoy the gift of life we have now.
If you'd like to see a list of great Hanami spots in Japan check this article out: The Best Cherry Blossom Viewing Spots in Japan.
How Long do Sakura Bloom For?
It takes a cherry blossom tree one week to reach peak bloom, or mankai. After the first week and it is in full bloom then you have about another week to see them in all of their glory. Usually during this second week though the weather can play a major part in when the petals fall. They can usually withstand the rain but it is the wind that does them in. But petals covering the ground is also a thing of beauty.
When is the Best Time to See the Cherry Blossoms?
In general, it is from late March to early April. This depends on how quickly mother nature has warmed tings up though and this could be moved up a few weeks of delayed. This makes it very difficult to plan cherry blossom festivals. We have a cherry blossom festival here in Buffalo, NY and one year in late April we were trying to do Hanami Flower Viewing in the snow.
If you would like to explore more about Japanese gardens please check us out at ShizenStyle.