Why Metro Vancouver's cherry blossom trees offer more than just a pretty picture

·2 min read
Crowds of people flock to a residential street in East Vancouver to enjoy the large cover of cherry blossom trees over the Easter long weekend. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC - image credit)
Crowds of people flock to a residential street in East Vancouver to enjoy the large cover of cherry blossom trees over the Easter long weekend. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC - image credit)

For Japanese-Canadians around the world, the white and pink blooms of the city's thousands of cherry blossom trees symbolize life and renewal.

During this time of year, crowds of people have been known to flock to several streets and parks across Metro Vancouver to take photos with the blossoms, which are deeply rooted in Japanese culture.

"They are the national tree of Japan," says Mimi Horita, a Japanese-Canadian living in the Steveston neighbourhood of Richmond, B.C.

Horita, who helps run the Sakura Days festival celebrating Japanese culture in B.C., says the start of the cherry blossom season historically marks both the start of rice planting season, as well as the start of the school year for children and graduation season for young adults.

Cherry blossom viewing, known as 'hanami', is a Japanese tradition that involves spending time with family enjoying food and drink under freshly-bloomed trees.
Cherry blossom viewing, known as 'hanami', is a Japanese tradition that involves spending time with family enjoying food and drink under freshly-bloomed trees.(Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

But the main reason, she says, is how the blossoms are a reminder of things that are temporary in life.

"It's a good reminder of life and … the beauty of things that don't last forever," she said.

This philosophy is reflected in the tradition of Hanami, which translates in English to "flower-watching." The tradition is celebrated by thousands of people in Japan each year.

"Once the flowers start to bloom along the riverbanks or in parks in Japan, families and friends will gather underneath the cherry blossom trees. They lay out picnic tarps and bring food and drink and enjoy the beauty of these petals," Horita said.

Trees gifted from Japan

Many of the trees standing in the City of Vancouver were donated by governments in Japan in the 1930s and late 1950s.

Horita said the mayors of Kobe and Yokohama in Japan donated cherry blossom trees in the early 1930s to be planted around the war memorial in Vancouver's Stanley Park, which is dedicated to the Japanese-Canadian soldiers who fought in the First World War and beyond.

"In the 1950s, more trees were donated by the consul general at that time. And those are the trees that you see planted around Vancouver," she added.

According to a statement from the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival, the Vancouver Park Board was also shifting away from planting bigger trees in the 1950s, like elm and maple trees, due to issues with the size of their growth and pest control.

Park staff preferred ornamental trees like cherry and plum blossoms for their size and ease of care.

Horita says her favourite part of cherry blossom season is the fact that the appreciation of their beauty transcends her own culture.

"It's not just something that the Japanese love. You can tell that it's an internationally worldwide loved flower," she said. "It kind of brings a little bit of that Japanese culture tradition here to Canada."