the blood tree

23Mar13

The cherry trees in the Osaka area are just starting to blossom, but there’s one tree on the Osaka University campus that’s already in full bloom.  In fact, the other day when it was a bit warm the flower petals were already starting to fall from the tree, forming drifting flower flurries in the air.  In Japanese this phenomenon has the most poetic of names — it’s called hana-fubuki (花吹雪), the “blossom blizzard.”

There are lots of stories about this particular tree and why it blossoms so much earlier than all the others.  My favorite involves the fact that the part of campus where the tree was planted used to be used for training medical students.  In one version of this story, years of dumping medicines in the ground resulted in a kind of accidental mutant growth serum that gives the tree its early bloom power.  The better story, however, is that students used to pour their blood samples here, or even that there’s a cadaver buried under the roots of the tree.

The theme of the blood-thirsty cherry tree isn’t uncommon in Japanese culture.  I’ve come across at least one story in which cherry trees were originally white, but after a corpse was buried beneath the petals turned pink.  Similarly, the cherry blossoms are often thought to be connected with Buddhist notions of the transience of existence, but this sometimes is applied specifically to samurai: the light pink of the blossoms become symbolic drops of blood. The writer Motojirō Kajii (梶井 基次郎) begins his story “Lemon” with the line “Dead bodies are buried under the cherry trees!” (「桜の樹の下には屍体が埋まっている!」)

But there are more rational explanations for this early bloomer, of course.  One is that the tree lies in a particular sunny spot on campus with reflecting walls on either side that warm the tree up more quickly than the others.  Another is that this tree isn’t of the standard somei-yoshino variety, but rather a different type — a theory born out by the fact that this particular tree starts growing leaves while the blossoms are still at their height, while somei-yoshino trees usually don’t start producing leaves until after most of their blossoms have gone.

In the end — whatever the reason — it’s easy to see that this is a bloody lovely tree.

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