Vancouver’s Urban Forest: Ornamental cherry

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David Tracey is a writer, designer and community ecologist specializing in trees. He is the author of six books including the new Vancouver Tree Book.

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You know it’s Spring in Vancouver when the streets transform into a giant ikebana and entire neighbourhoods are filled with fragrant clouds of white and pink petals.

Those are ornamental cherries, all members of the Prunus genus with a confusing blend of species and more cultivars than you can count.

Sakura, as the blossoms are called in Japan, have been celebrated there for more than a millennia. First to catch on were members of the Imperial court who staged elegant blossom-viewing or hanami parties. The samurai then saw the appeal. Catching on around the same time they got into Buddhism, they found in the blossoms a symbol of the ephemeral nature of all life, a precarious existence in which a flower or a person could suddenly fall even at the height of their youthful beauty.

Once the common folk caught sakura fever, hanami parties spread nationwide and continue with no loss of enthusiasm to this day. The government issues updates on the advancing sakura front so people can plan their office or group parties. City parks become jammed with revelers drinking, singing, eating, drinking some more and occasionally gazing at the blossoms that drew them.

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Vancouver has had ornamental cherries since the 1930s when Yokohama gifted the city with trees. Once they bloomed in Stanley Park, we never looked back. Today there are about 40,000 ornamental cherries citywide, along with a festival so people can channel their enthusiasm into walks and talks and haiku contests and more.

Somehow the tradition of mass revelry under nighttime blossoms hasn’t caught on here, maybe because our weather is too iffy. But spring is also uncertain in Japan, and some years all plans get whisked away along with the blossoms in a chilling storm. The parties end before they start, but no one seems to complain at the reminder of the evanescent nature of life, and plans for next year’s festivities go right ahead as ever.

The launch for Vancouver Tree Book will be held Wednesday, April 6, 7pm at Book Warehouse on 4118 Main St. Free to all, books available for $20.

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