Nature Field Note

Korean Colors of Spring

Abstract: It may still be very chilly here in South Korea, but the plants are already very excited about spring! As the weather slowly gets warmer, thousands of flowers are exploding out of the wintery landscape! The spring blooming season is a very special time for many Asian cultures and there is one flowery superstar that usually gets much more attention than the rest. Can you guess what it is?

Introduction: Spring is the season of new beginnings. As the winter cold starts to retreat, plants, animals and even people seem to come back to life.  Nature coaxes us out of our homes by the beautiful flowers that begin blooming all around us. Here in Korea, people are always grateful to see the new flowers because they know that the long winter will soon be over. Usually around March, you can see crowds of Koreans making their way to their favorite parks. They are out taking pictures with family and friends in front of the bright rainbow of flowers. Some of the most popular flowers are the playful purple azaleas, the golden waterfalls of forsythia and the huge white Korean magnolia trees.

The stars of this spring floral spectacle are much more famous than any of these though. The scientific, latin name for them is Prunus serrulata. However, most people know them as the Japanese Cherry, or simply, the cherry blossom tree.

What does this plant look like?  While there are hundreds of cherry blossom varieties, most of them look similar. Most of the cherry blossom trees in Korea are between 9 and 30 feet high with a smooth bark. The flowers bloom in early spring before the new leaves begin growing in. The flowers are usually white to brilliant pink with 5 petals each (10 petals for the double varieties). In the center of the flower you can see the bright yellow pollen at the tip of the white, noodley stamens. The stamen is the center-most part of the flower. They look like really thin fingers poking out of the middle of the flower.The flowers grow in dense groups and tend to bloom all at once. This makes the trees look like big, puffy, pink clouds!

How did I feel when I saw it?

I first saw blooming cherry blossoms at the Cherry Blossom Festival in Seoul. Thousands of people had gathered to take pictures and have picnics under the beautiful flowering trees. Koreans love the blossoms so much that they often time their vacations to overlap with the blooming season. They will then travel very far just to see their favorite cherry blossom viewing location.  For many Koreans, the tree symbolizes renewed hope for the future or the power of beauty. For many students, however, the cherry blossom season marks the coming of mid-term examinations and sleepless nights of preparatory studying.

Purple Azaleas: The first flower of spring I saw!

My first thought as I went to the festival was how troublesome it might be trying to swim through a sea of so many people! The subway station closest to the festival park was very crowded, but luckily, my friends and I had walked from a different station and were able to avoid the majority of people. We found a nice spot on a grassy hill to sit down and enjoy some fruit I had packed.

On the hillside, we could look out over the Han River, the Korean National Assembly Building and the hundreds of cherry blossom trees decorating the waterfront. Sitting there in the sunshine with my good friends, eating yummy fruit and watching children fly kites nearby made me feel so peaceful and relaxed. I could have sat there for hours just chatting and watching the people walk by. That was when I felt that spring had finally come to Korea!

Where does it live?

When people think of cherry blossoms, they usually think of Japan. There have been so many movies, paintings[A3]  and pictures of Japanese gardens filled with cherry blossoms that many people think they only come from Japan. Where the trees first came from is still argued by many scientists, but they do know it was one of two places. The first is, of course, Japan, but the second is quite a surprise for many people. The second original home of the cherry blossom is the little island of Jeju. If you look at the map of Asia, you will see a little island just south of the Korean peninsula and just west of the Japanese city of Nagasaki. That little jellybean-shaped island is the “paradise” of Korea and is called Jeju Island. It has much warmer weather than the rest of Korea and many tourists flock there to enjoy the clean beaches, beautiful mountains and exceptional displays of cherry blossoms.

Even though these trees are originally from Korea and Japan, they have traveled very far. In 1912, Japan gave over 3000 cherry blossom trees to the United States as a sign of the growing friendship between the countries. You can still see these trees blooming in Manhattan and Washington D.C. Have you seen them around New York City? Similar gifts to other countries and individuals have taken the trees to Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, The Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

How does it use its environment to survive?

Magnolia sieboldii blooming on my campus

Like most other plants, the cherry blossom tree absorbs water and nutrients from the soil beneath it. It also needs lots of sunlight and carbon dioxide so it can capture the sun’s energy and make food for itself. Have you heard about how plants make their own food? It is a very interesting process called photosynthesis. Maybe you can do independent research on this process!

Besides food, plants also depend on animals for survival. I am sure you have seen bees collecting pollen from flowers. Do you know that this one way plants reproduce? The plants need insects, birds, or other animals to carry the pollen or seeds to different places where new plants can grow. Cherry blossom trees have a very special animal that helps them reproduce. It not only helps to make more trees, but it also waters the trees, cares for the trees and has picnic lunches under the blossoms. Did you guess who it is? Human beings, of course!

The bees help the plants because they get pollen for honey. People help cherry blossoms because they are so beautiful and we always want to be around them! Just because of the tree’s beauty, people do everything for the cherry blossom tree. It looks like it chose a very good survival strategy! What do you think?

What can harm this plant? Are we worried about it?

I already mentioned that people put a lot of effort into growing cherry blossom trees and take very good care of them, but this has actually caused a very serious problem for the tree as well. Just like people have bred dogs into several different breeds, the cherry blossom tree has been changed by people into very specific varieties called “cultivars”. These trees are chosen because of their specific qualities like flower color or density of flowers. Because people must breed very similar trees to create these cultivars, all the new trees share almost exactly the same biological characteristics. The bad side to this is that if one of the trees gets a disease or is attacked by parasites, they are all in danger of the same problem. On the other hand, wild trees mix with each other randomly, so they have a better chance of resisting new diseases or parasites.

Diversity is what helps plants get stronger and adapt to changes in their environment. However, people are limiting the diversity of plants by choosing to plant only one specific type of vegetable, flower, or tree. This type of farming does help us produce more food and bigger crops, but it is also responsible for the loss of entire farms when just one new disease is introduced.  Do you remember the trees I said that Japan gave the United States in 1912? Those trees were actually replacements for 2000 trees that Japan gave us in 1910. The 1910 trees were all killed by the same disease.

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