Cherry Blossom Grown from Space Seeds a bit Weird

A cosmic mystery is uniting monks and scientists in Japan after a cherry tree grown from a seed that orbited the Earth for eight months bloomed years earlier than expected -- and with very surprising flowers.

A cosmic mystery is uniting monks and scientists in Japan after a cherry tree grown from a seed that orbited the Earth for eight months bloomed years earlier than expected -- and with very surprising flowers.

The four-year-old sapling -- grown from a cherry stone that spent time aboard the International Space Station (ISS) -- burst into blossom on April 1, possibly a full six years ahead of Mother Nature's normal schedule.

Its early blooming baffled Buddhist brothers at the ancient temple in central Japan where the tree is growing.

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"We are amazed to see how fast it has grown," Masahiro Kajita, chief priest at the Ganjoji temple in Gifu, told AFP by telephone.

"A stone from the original tree had never sprouted before. We are very happy because it will succeed the old tree, which is said to be 1,250 years old."

The wonder pip was among 265 harvested from the celebrated "Chujo-hime-seigan-zakura" tree, selected as part of a project to gather seeds from different kinds of cherry trees at 14 locations across Japan.

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The stones were sent to the ISS in November 2008 and came back to Earth in July the following year with Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, after circling the globe 4,100 times.

Some were sent for laboratory tests, but most were ferried back to their places of origin, and a selection were planted at nurseries near the Ganjoji temple.

By April this year, the "space cherry tree" had grown to around four meters (13 feet) tall, and suddenly produced nine flowers -- each with just five petals, compared with about 30 on flowers of the parent tree.

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It normally takes about 10 years for a cherry tree of the similar variety to bear its first buds.

The Ganjoji temple sapling is not the only early-flowering space cherry tree.

Of the 14 locations in which the pits were replanted, blossoms have been spotted at four places.

Two years ago, a young tree bore 11 flowers in Hokuto, a mountain region 115 kilometers (70 miles) west of Tokyo, around two years after it was planted.

It was of a variety that normally only comes into flower at the age of eight.

The seeds were sent to the ISS as part of "an educational and cultural project to let children gather the stones and learn how they grow into trees and live on after returning from space," said Miho Tomioka, a spokeswoman for the project's organizer, Japan Manned Space Systems (JAMSS).

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"We had expected the (Ganjoji) tree to blossom about 10 years after planting, when the children come of age," she added.

Kaori Tomita-Yokotani, a researcher at the University of Tsukuba who took part in the project, told AFP she was stumped by the extra-terrestrial mystery.

"We still cannot rule out the possibility that it has been somewhat influenced by its exposure to the space environment," she said.

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Tomita-Yokotani, a plant physiologist, said it was difficult to explain why the temple tree has grown so fast because there was no control group to compare its growth with that of other trees.

She said cross-pollination with another species could not be ruled out, but a lack of data was hampering an explanation.

"Of course, there is the possibility that exposure to stronger cosmic rays accelerated the process of sprouting and overall growth," she said.

"From a scientific point of view, we can only say we don't know why."

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Wakata is back aboard the ISS, where he is in command of the station.

The astronaut took part in a video link-up on Thursday with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and US Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, chatting about his daily life hundreds of kilometers above the Earth.

Cherry blossoms are in full bloom in Tokyo, Japan, but after their space journey as seeds, some of the cherry trees are strangely different.

The more than 3,000 flowering cherry trees in Washington, D.C., are on the verge of turning the city into a pink-and-white bipartisan town. Currently the blooms are in the puffy white stage and the

National Park Service is predicting

they will peak between April 11-14. The Yoshino Cherry trees, a gift from the city of Tokyo in 1912, line the Tidal Basin of the Potomac River. In this photo they're blossoming around the Jefferson Memorial. The average peak blossom date is April 4, but they have bloomed as early as March 15 in 1990 and as late as April 18 in 1958.

Japan originally sent 2,000 trees in 1910, but they were diseased and had to be burned. In 1912, Japan sent a second batch of trees, which became the "first trees." Plaques mark the two original trees believed to be those planted by First Lady Helen Herron Taft and Viscountess Chinda, the wife of the Japanese ambassador, in a small ceremony on March 27, 1912. Only one hundred of the first trees still remain among today's population of around 3,770 trees.

One of the cherry trees' strongest advocates was Eliza Ruhama Scidmore, a world traveler, writer and editor and the first female board member of the National Geographic Society.

After her first visit to Japan in 1885, she tried for 24 years to convince the powers that be to plant cherry trees along the Potomac waterfront. Finally, she decided in 1909 to raise funds to buy the trees and donate them to the city. Imagine her delight when, after writing to the First Lady to tell her of her plan, she received a reply just two days later from Mrs. Taft saying, "I have taken the matter up and am promised the trees."

The plan quickly gained steam when wealthy Japanese chemist Jokichi Takamine, who discovered adrenaline, among other things, and the Japanese consul in New York proposed a donation of 2,000 trees from the city of Tokyo, paid for by Takamine.

After the first batch arrived diseased and had to be burned, Tokyo's Mayor Yukio Ozaki, pictured here with his daughters walking along the Tidal Basin, and Takamine followed through with a second donation of 3,020 replacement trees, again funded by Takamine. These trees came from cuttings from a renowned stand of trees lining the Arakawa River, a Tokyo suburb.

In 1938, a group of women threatened to chain themselves to a group of cherry trees to prevent them from being chopped down to build the new Jefferson Memorial. In a compromise, more trees were planted along the water to frame the memorial.

In 1952, the United States donated cuttings from the trees back to the parent grove of trees in Arakawa River, which suffered during World War II, a practice which continued at other times to provide tree stock to Japanese communities and horticulturalists.

In 1965, the Japanese government gave 3,800 additional trees to First Lady Lady Bird Johnson.

Today, two species of cherry tree dominate the Capitol, though there are specimens of 13 types in total. There are about 2,763 Yoshino cherry trees (

Prunus x yedoensis

), which grow around the Tidal Basin and the Washington Monument. They display a cluster of white blossoms and bloom about two weeks before the other variety, the Kwanzan cherry (

Prunus x serrulata


The Kwanzan cherry tree grows mainly in East Potomac Park, yielding pink pairs of blooms.