“For these few days, the hills are bright with cherry blossom. Longer, and we should not prize them so.” – Yamabe no Akahito
In Japan cherry trees are grown not for their fruits, but only for their beautiful blossom. The trees seldom bear fruit: when they occasionally do, it is inedible. The days in which the cherry trees blossom mark a very auspicious event: festivals, parties and other important events are planned to coincide with it, so as to garner favour with their ancestors. Japanese call raw horsemeat sakura, or cherry blossom, after its pinkish colour.
Picnicking underneath a cherry tree in bloom, in Japan, is called hanami, literally “flower viewing”. What started as a ritual at the imperial court is now a national obsession, with more and more cherry blossom trees being planted throughout Japan. Each year, the sakura zensen or “cherry blossom forecast” is released by the Japanese metrological office, and is tracked as it moves northward up Japan along with the warm weather. The blossom starts in Okinawa in January, reaches Tokyo around March or April, and then heads north to Hokkaido. The blossoms have come to symbolise the transience of life and so pop up frequently in Japanese art, film and music, as well as on kimonos, tea cups, plates and other everyday objects.
The Queen gets a sprig of blossom from Glastonbury each year around Christmas time. The blossom comes from a tree on Wearyall Hill above the town, which is supposed to have grown from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea, mourner of Christ and alleged bearer of the holy grail, more than 2,000 years ago. The tree is a variety of common hawthorn called Crataegus monogyna ‘Biflora’ because it flowers twice – once in spring and again in winter, shortly after Christmas.
Many cuttings have been taken from it over the years: the most recent tree was planted in 1951, and badly damaged in 2010. The church of St John also has three sacred thorns, one of which is more than 80 years old, and which has produced grafts and cuttings that have been planted all over the world.
The may tree or hawthorn is the only British plant to be named after the month in which it blooms. It is the origin of both the Maypole and the phrase “Ne’er cast a clout till may be out” – which refers not to the ending of the month, but to the opening of the flowers. Though the may is traditionally associated with May Day, it blossoms in the middle of the month (or even later, this year) not at the beginning. This is due to the changes made to the Gregorian calendar in 1752. Before this, May Day would have occurred 11 days later, exactly the time when the may tree breaks into flower.
It is considered extremely unlucky to bring hawthorn flowers inside the house, a superstition more widely believed than for any other species of plant in the British Isles. There are many possible reasons for this, but the most convincing is to do with its smell. Hawthorn flowers have a heavy, complicated scent, the distinctive element of which is triethylamine, which is also one of the first chemicals produced by a dead human body when it starts to decay.
On the other hand, triethylamine also smells like semen; hence its positive association with wild springtime romps in the fields.
Blossom, a Gloucester cow, and arguably the most influential cow in history, was the source of dairymaid Sarah Nelmes’s cowpox infection. Working on a hunch that cowpox and smallpox might be related, Edward Jenner, then a country doctor, took some discharge from cowpox pustules on Nelmes’s hand and put it into an incision in the arm of the eight-year-old James Phipps, the son of his gardener. Other than a slight fever, Phipps was fine.
Six weeks later, Jenner inoculated him with pus from a smallpox sufferer. Again, no reaction. Two years later, having regularly performed the procedure, which he named “vaccine inoculation” from the Latin vacca, “cow”, Jenner published the paper that would change everything: “An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae … known by the name of the Cow-pox (1798)”. Soon the government was offering vaccination free of charge and Jenner was a national hero.
As for Blossom, her hide still hangs in St George’s Hospital, Tooting, and her horns – rather like bits of the True Cross – have multiplied since her death: at least six “authentic” pairs have been recorded.