Botanists baffled by rapid growth of 'space cherry'

April 06, 2014

By TAKAYA KOBAYASHI/ Staff Writer

GIFU--A tree grown from a cherry pit that traveled in space five years ago with astronaut Koichi Wakata, now commander of the International Space Station, has bloomed far ahead of what is normal--to the astonishment of botanists.

Cherry trees typically take about a decade from the time they sprout from seeds to bloom.

The cherry pit was one of around 265 produced from the fruit of the famous 1,250-year-old “Chujohimeseigan-zakura” cherry tree grown in the compound of the Ganjoji temple here, which traces its roots to the seventh century.

In the "space cherry" project organized by Tokyo-based Japan Manned Space Systems Corp., the space-going pits were rocketed to the International Space Station in 2008, and returned to Earth in July 2009 with Wakata, now 50.

The original Chujohimeseigan-zakura tree is a variant of the “yamazakura” wild cherry species, and until now, attempts to grow young trees from its fruit have been unsuccessful.

Botanist Takao Yoshimura, 78, successfully sprouted one of the pits that traveled to the ISS using a method in which he covered the soil with sphagnum moss.

In four years, the young plant has grown to a height of about 4 meters. This spring, it produced about 10 buds, which all were in bloom by April 4.

Yoshimura said it takes 10 years or more for cherry trees to grow flowers, but the young trees produced from cherry pits taken into space have flowered unusually early. Some of the 265 space-traveling cherry pits were planted in Kochi and Yamanashi prefectures after they returned to Earth and they have already come into bloom as well.

Botanist Kaori Tomita, a 56-year-old lecturer at University of Tsukuba who participated in the space cherry project, said that current science can offer no answer for the unusually fast growth of the space cherries.

“There is a theoretical possibility that the cosmic environment has had a certain impact on agents in the seeds that control budding and the growth process, but we have absolutely no answer as to why the trees have come into bloom so fast,” she said.

Although each flower of the parent tree has around 30 petals, the flowers of the space cherry have only five petals.

“As it is grown from a seed, the young plant might have reverted back to have the characteristics of original yamazakura species,” Yoshimura said.

Yoshimura added that as it grows older, the space cherry may have more petals on each flower like its parent tree, which is now in full bloom.

By TAKAYA KOBAYASHI/ Staff Writer
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The "space cherry" is in bloom at Ganjoji temple in Gifu on April 2. (Takaya Kobayashi)

The "space cherry" is in bloom at Ganjoji temple in Gifu on April 2. (Takaya Kobayashi)

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  • The "space cherry" is in bloom at Ganjoji temple in Gifu on April 2. (Takaya Kobayashi)
  • Botanist Takao Yoshimura, left, checks out the blooming "space cherry" at Ganjoji temple in Gifu on April 2. (Takaya Kobayashi)

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