What are cherry blossoms?

Every March and April, residents in Richmond, Vancouver, and the Lower Mainland shrug off winter’s chill with hopes of spring. New growth begins to peek out from the ground and budding cherry trees across B.C. signal the arrival of a sunnier and warmer season. Cherry blossoms are a particularly iconic harbinger of spring, with thousands of people making pilgrimages to neighbourhoods far and wide to see stretches of the whimsical trees.

What is so special about cherry blossoms? What do they symbolize?

Cherry blossoms, or sakura, are the national flower of Japan, which is where many believe the practice of cherry blossom viewing originated. An entire culture has sprung up around the act of flower viewing, or hanami, which has spread to the far corners of the world. Hanami has become an annual ritual for family and friends, a chance to gather under the flowers and picnic with loved ones.

Appreciating the fragile beauty and ephemeral splendor of the cherry blossoms is one aspect of hanami. Cherry blossoms bloom for less than two weeks, inviting reflection on the fleeting nature of life. Tied so closely to spring, the flowers also symbolize rebirth and renewal. Not to mention, full cherry blossom canopies look like exquisite pink clouds, making for an ethereal backdrop on any stroll or afternoon picnic.

Where is the best place to see cherry blossoms?

Different varieties of cherry blossom trees can be found across Vancouver, with pockets of blooms found in different neighbourhoods. Richmond locals, however, are well familiar with the stunning grove of 255 Akebono cherry trees in scenic Garry Point Park. Every year since 2017, the Richmond Cherry Blossom Festival has brought together the community to experience the spring flowers, celebrate the region’s rich history, and discover traditional Japanese culture. This year, the festival has moved online so that everyone can see the blossoms safely as we continue to navigate the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

To explore all of the city’s blossoms, this cherry tree map of Richmond is a great resource.

What is an Akebono cherry tree?

Akebono is a cultivar of the Yoshino cherry, one of the most popular cherry blossom varieties in the world. The Akebono was chosen for Garry Point Park due to its hardy nature and ability to withstand wet and cool temperatures — perfect for the park’s location on the Pacific Ocean.

The Akebono cherry tree is popular throughout the Pacific Northwest and can be identified by a number of factors. The blossoms feature a light fragrance and a delicate, single layer of petals. Although the buds begin as a vibrant pink, they quickly fade into a whitish hue as they mature and eventually wilt. Younger trees grow sturdily upright, with branches extending outwards with age. As they mature, Akebono trees will grow as tall as 25-feet with an even broader canopy. They make for lovely tree-lined paths and live for as long as 80 years.

The Akebono cultivar was selected the Dr. Jim Tanaka, Mary and Sammy Hirano, directors of the BC Wakayama Kenjin Kai (Prefectural Association). Since the first cherry tree was planted in Garry Point Park in 2000, many different community members have participated in the plantings. A few notable figures include several Consul Generals from the Consulate General of Japan in Vancouver, including: Toshiyuki Taga, Seiichi Otsuka, and Hideki Ito. Yoshiki Kimura, the governor of the Wakayama Prefecture in Japan, participated in a planting in 2004. Richmond’s former mayor Greg Halsey-Brandt and current mayor Malcolm D. Brodie have also overseen plantings.