Cherry Blossoms Bloom at High Park
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Cherry Blossoms Bloom at High Park

How an international gesture of friendship turned High Park into one of the most popular springtime destinations in Toronto.

Photo by kaeko, from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

Photo by kaeko, from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

For a few days each spring, an arguably ironic thing happens in High Park. Hemmed in by winter for months, what feels like Toronto’s entire population spills into the park, eager to breathe air that doesn’t freeze the lungs—and, presumably, to feel a little closer to nature. But the result isn’t exactly the long exhale of spring that many expect.

Instead, it’s as if the city comes to a halting critical mass in High Park’s 161 hectares of space, stopping to smell the flowers in numbers that can rival Yonge-Dundas Square. The day seems anything but pastoral or bucolic.

Traffic—cars, bikes, longboards, scooters—snarl the park’s entrances, with the intersection at High Park and Bloor nearly blocked by the density of arriving vehicles alone. Along West Road, the lawns and shaded groves near the Forest School fill quickly, as crowds of camera-wielding residents turn what was all but abandoned only two weeks ago into a festival scene. Even at the sweltering height of summer, High Park isn’t as overwhelmingly, blissfully popular as it is for this brief, fleeting sliver of spring.

Yes, it’s that time of year again, and it’s like a dream. As West Road plunges down the first in a series of hills into High Park, it veers toward a sharp, right-hand pedestrian turn—which then plunges even more steeply toward Grenadier Pond. This time of year, the path is bursting with cherry blossoms—and not just any cherry blossoms (or, in Japanese, sakura). These are examples of the most resplendent species of cherry blossom in the world.

In 1959, the citizens of Tokyo presented the citizens of Toronto with our city’s first Yoshino Cherry tree—what’s known in Japanese as somei yoshino. In Japan, these deciduous trees—relatively small in stature, growing to between five and 12 metres in height—are naturally occurring hybrids, believed to be descended from the Oshima cherry trees of Japan’s Izu Peninsula, near Tokyo. Because of their adaptability to a range of temperate environments, the trees have become globally renowned, and are perhaps one of the most widely cultivated types of sakura in the world.

But nowhere in the world are these trees more popular or numerous than they are in their native Japan, where they have had cultural importance since the late Edo period, which is the phase of Japanese history between 1603 and 1868. In Japan, sakura represent winter’s end, with the return of spring, new life, and a renewed growing season. And, looking at High Park’s Yoshino cherry blossoms, it’s plainly apparent what makes this particular species of sakura so appealing.

It’s as if the trees near Grenadier Pond have transformed, going from bare, featureless bark to an explosion of ethereal beauty overnight. When somei yoshino mature in spring, their five-petal blossoms burst. Later in the season, fresh leaves appear and begin competing for precious nutrients.

The result is the awe-inspiring floral supernova that drew Toronto to the west end in droves last week. Eventually, the somei yoshino will drop their petals like a warm, forgiving, post-winter snow, coating the asphalt of High Park in shades of pink that verge on white.

Of course, the numbers of Yoshino Cherry trees in the world could be explained in simple, happy terms. The somei yoshino donated in 1959 were complemented with another donation in 1984, and then with yet another in 2001 under the auspices of the Sakura project, an initiative of the Consulate General of Japan in Toronto. Until it came to an end in September 2012, the Sakura project continued the Japanese tradition of donating sakura as an international goodwill gesture. The earliest such instance was in Washington D.C. in 1911, when Jokichi Takamine, a Japanese physician, donated 3,020 sakura to be planted along the Potomac River and on the grounds of the White House.

In addition to High Park, sakura donated through the Sakura Project can also be found at York University, where 250 such trees were planted in 2003.