Chapter 2: Varieties of cherry blossoms

There are many varieties of cherry blossoms, which are the flowers on the various trees classified into the genus Cerasus (Rosaceae). Today, more than 300 varieties are cultivated, and in the Edo period, there were already various cultivars. This chapter focuses on the varieties of cherry blossoms, and shows them with gardening books and botanical art books.

Edo, the city where various cherry blossoms bloomed

Today, most cherry blossoms we can see in Tokyo are Cerasus × yedoensis ‘Somei Yoshino’. It is said that Somei Yoshino accounts for 70% to 80% of the cherry trees planted in Japan. However, it was not so long ago that the Japanese people came to see only one kind of cherry blossom, as Somei Yoshino was found in the late Edo period and spread all over Japan after the Meiji Restoration.
In the Edo period, people saw different varieties of cherry blossoms than the current cultivars. Many varieties of cherry trees were planted in Edo. Since the time when the cherry blossoms bloomed also varied depending on the variety, people could enjoy watching various cherry blossoms over a long time. Today, since the cherry blossoms bloom and fall all at once on Somei Yoshino trees, we can only enjoy hanami over a short term. In the Edo period, the hanami season lasted for a month. The people in Edo enjoyed watching various kinds of cherry blossoms, with varied petal colors and blooming times. We show below works which help us understand when various cherry blossoms bloomed or the many cultivars planted in spots in the Edo period.

Kafu (3 vols.)

This work is a classical botanical book on flowers and introduced the flowers that bloom in each month in vol. 2 and 3. In the section of the second month (March in the Gregorian calendar), it introduced the varieties Kozakura and Tareito-zakura, as well as standard cherry blossoms, as quoted below. The later part described the features of each cultivar, when it bloomed, and where famous spots for viewing it were.


It blooms spring around the time of higan (a Buddhist ceremony conducted around the equinox), so it is also called “higan-zakura.” It is a kind of cherry blossom. Its tree is also like other cherry trees.

It blooms a little later than higan-zakura. It is a specific type of higan-zakura, with drooping branches, so it should be grafted on higan-zakura. If it is grafted on other cherry trees, it won’t grow much, and will wither easily. It is not suitable for damp fields. It is better if no other trees are around. Weeds around its roots must be removed. It is very lovable when its blossoms bloom and flourish in the garden.

Sakura (standard cherry blossoms)
Single-flowered blossoms bloom after the spring equinox day, and about ten days later than higan-zakura. Double-flowered blossoms bloom after another ten days. The time of blooming varies by place… And there are so many varieties of cherry blossoms, I can’t list them all. Uba-zakura blooms very early. It is so named because the blossoms blooming before the young leaves (in Japanese “ha”) sprout are likened to an uba (old woman) whose teeth (in Japanese “ha”) are missing. Its petals are a light reddish white, like higan-zakura. After the blooming of uba-zakura, higan-zakura blooms. Later, ito-zakura (tareito-zakura) blooms. Kumagae-zakura also blooms at the same time. Later some single-flowered blossoms bloom, which are distinguished into several cultivars.

Edo yuran hanagoyomi (4 vols.)

This is a type of guidebook on flowers called hanagoyomi, which will be introduced in Chapter 3, and is also known as Edo yuran hanagoyomi. It explains when, where and what kind of flowers blooms in Edo. According to the section on Ueno quoted below, various cherry blossoms planted there were blooming one after another, so people could see the blossoms until the end of the third month (the beginning of May in the Gregorian calendar). Illustrations depicting ten varieties of cherry blossoms such as higan-zakura are included.

Edo yuran hanagoyomi

Edo yuran hanagoyomi

Ueno, the hill in the grounds of Kan’ei-ji temple
Various kinds of cherry blossoms are planted all over the hill and their time of blooming varies. I will explain all of them below.
This hill is the most wonderful cherry blossom viewing spot in Edo. First higan-zakura blooms, followed by single-flowered blossoms and double-flowered blossoms blooming one after another, so the blossoms don’t disappear until the end of the third month.

Nampo hanami no ki

This work is a record of hanami that famous poet OTA Nampo (1749-1823) enjoyed in 1792. Nampo went out for hanami with his friends eight times from 31 March to 14 April that year. He recorded what kinds of cherry blossoms were planted and how long they were in bloom in the spots he went. The illustration below is a drawing of the layout of cherry blossoms in the grounds of Raifuku-ji temple in Shinagawa.

Nanpo hanami no ki

Various cherry blossoms in gardening books and art books

What kinds of varieties did the people in Edo see? In the Edo period, many gardening books and botanical art books focusing on flowers were published. These books show different varieties of cherry blossoms, some of which are no longer seen. Some artists also sketched the cherry blossoms in detail. We can see that people were deeply interested in cherry blossoms in the Edo period.
Below are works which describe many varieties of cherry blossoms and art books focused on them.

Somoku shasei shunju no maki

Somoku shasei shunju no maki

This botanical art book mainly focuses on garden plants and consists of a total of 4 volumes, 2 volumes each for spring and autumn. It includes sketches of cherry blossoms. The sketches shown above depict some blossoms such as uba-zakura, with the description of the date and the place of sketching as “sketched at Kano, Mino province (present-day Gifu prefecture) on 19 April 1665.”

Kadan komoku (3 vols.)

Kadan komoku

This work is the oldest gardening book in Japan. It has a short explanation of the garden plants planted in flower beds each season, and lists the cultivars of popular plants such as cherry blossoms. In a part of the chapter on cherry blossoms shown above, although it is without illustrations, 40 cultivars are listed under the section title “the various names of rare kinds of cherry blossoms.”

Igansai ohin

Igansai ohin

Igansai ohin

This work focuses only on cherry blossoms, describing 69 kinds. It explains each variety, with illustrations depicting some. It also mentions where they were planted, or when they bloomed. The upper right page is a part of the table of contents listing names of each variety, and the upper left page is the section on higan-zakura, the first described in this work.

Baien somoku kafu: haru no bu (4 vols.)

Baien somoku kafu: haru no bu

This work, with a preface written in 1825, is the largest series of art books painted by MORI Baien (1798-1851), a vassal of the Tokugawa shogunate and a botanist, and one of the best botanical art books of the Edo period. The series consist of 4 parts divided into the four seasons. The picture above is from the part titled Haru no bu (the part of spring), which includes pictures depicting varieties of cherry blossoms.




The artist SAKAMOTO Konen (1800-1853) is well known for sketches of cherry blossoms. In this work he made sketches of 29 kinds of cherry blossoms. The upper left sketch depicts a kind of cherry blossoms with green leaves named kirigayatsu (a variety which originated from the cherry tree planted in Kirigayatsu, Kamakura), and the upper right sketch depicts a variety with reddish petals named tsumabeni (literally meaning “nail polish”).




In this work, an anonymous artist sketched 12 kinds of cherry blossoms in detail, such as Sakon-zakura, a variety which originated from the cherry tree planted at the left side of the garden of the Imperial Palace in Kyoto.

Sakura zukushi

Sakura zukushi

Sakura zukushi

This work consists of many sketches of various cherry blossoms, although the artist and the time of painting are unknown.

Gardeners and cherry blossoms in Edo

In the late Edo period, gardening was so popular that it could be called a boom. Professional gardeners played important roles in spreading it. Although cultivar improvement of cherry blossoms was already made in earlier periods, gardeners bred various new cultivars in the Edo period. They even traveled all over Japan to find rare varieties.
Somei Yoshino, the cultivar that we generally associate with cherry blossoms, was also found in the late Edo period. There are several theories about the origin of Somei Yoshino, and one influential theory says the original tree was sold by a gardener in Somei, a village located around present-day Komagome and Sugamo, Toshima, in the late Edo period.
Somei Yoshino was named in the Meiji era (1868-1912), and had simply been called Yoshino until that time. However, it is not the case that all of them in the literature of the late Edo period were the same as the current Somei Yoshino, because the current cultivar Yoshino-zakura, which is distinguished from Somei Yoshino, was also included among the cherry trees called Yoshino at that time. That is to say, Somei Yoshino was identified from some varieties collectively called Yoshino in the Edo period.

Zoho Jikin sho

ITO Sannojo and his son Masatake, who used the name “ITO Ihee” for generations in their family, were the most notable gardeners in Somei in the Edo period. Jikin sho, a series of the gardening books by them, often dealt with cherry blossoms. This work is a revised edition of Jikin sho, estimated to be published in 1733. In the section quoted below, various cultivars of cherry blossoms and their features are described, starting with Yoshino.

Zoho Jikin sho

Varieties of cherry blossoms: Blooming on trees in mid-to-late spring (from March to April)

Cherry blossoms are highly valued, with blooms on long hanging branches becoming bunches. However, the color must be beautiful.

It has middle-sized and single-flowered blossoms. It is also called “yama-zakura” (literally meaning “the cherry blossom blooming in mountains”). The seeds collected from Yoshino grow into wonderful cherry tree that many blossoms bloom on. In the preface of Kokin wakashu (a classical anthology of Japanese poetry in the 10th century), “it is poetic that the cherry blossoms are in full bloom all over Mt. Yoshino on a spring morning, however Kakinomoto no Hitomaro (the legendary poet in the 7th century) felt it to be only likened to a cloud.”

Somoku kihin kagami (3 vols.)

This work is a gardening book, describing rare plants such as spotted plants. The author Kinta (1791-1862) was a gardener in present-day Aoyama, Minato. Volume 3 includes a ranking list of varieties of cherry blossoms, which resembled banzuke, the tournament ranking list of sumo wrestlers. The highest rank, ozeki, on the eastern side was Taizan fukun (a cultivar named for the emperor of the land of the dead in Chinese legend), and for the western side was kirigayatsu.

Somoku kihin kagami

Column: The godfather of Somei Yoshino

Somei Yoshino was named by FUJINO Yorinaga (1848-1926), a botanist who worked at the Tokyo Imperial Museum (now the Tokyo National Museum). When Fujino surveyed the cherry trees planted in Ueno Park, he found that there was an unidentified kind which should be distinguished from yama-zakura. He named it Somei Yoshino, and published a paper in The Journal of the Horticultural Society of Japan in 1900 (see note 1). The next year, MATSUMURA Jinzo (1856-1928), a professor of the Tokyo Imperial University (now the University of Tokyo) gave Somei Yoshino the scientific name Prunus yedoensis (see note 2), although a different scientific name (Cerasus × yedoensis ‘Somei-yoshino’) is now used as it was found that Somei Yoshino is a hybrid.
Somei Yoshino trees are easy to cultivate and grow, and their blossoms bloom and fall all at once, with their leaves sprouting after the full bloom. Since such features were preferred, they were planted all over Japan during the 20th century.

1. FUJINO Yorinaga, “Ueno koen oka no shurui,” Nihon engeikai zassi, vol.92, 1900.1, pp.1-9. [特7-276]
2. J. Matsumura, “Cerasi Japanicae duae Species novae,” The botanical magazine, vol.15, no.174, 1901.8, pp.99-101. [特7-274]

Next Chapter 3:
Hanami customs

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