For me, cherry blossom season is the most exquisite time of the year. It heralds spring, filling the world with pink and white blossoms; it is nature’s festivity.
The cherry tree is of the prunus variety, and though it is prevalent across the globe, it is of particular cultural significance in Japan, where the ornamental prunus serrulata is celebrated as a national icon. ‘Hanami’ is a centuries-old Japanese custom of viewing the cherry blossoms, and is a public, communal pursuit, often done with a picnic. People gather in public parks and squares to honour the transient, fleeting beauty of the cherry blossoms, and often celebrate into the early hours.
The cherry blossom season is fleeting, lasting only a matter of weeks, and for this reason the ‘cherry blossom front’ (桜前線 sakura zensen) – the movement of the blossoming across Japan – is tracked with as much anticipation as a child for Christmas.
Cherry blossoms are tied closely in the Japanese cultural psyche with the metaphor of the ephemeral nature of life and the transience of human existence; the idea of extreme beauty and quick death. The concept of mono no aware (物の哀れ), a recognition of impermanence, is central to the cultural tradition.
Though transient, they are recurrent; marking the start of a new beginning, a new spring, another year.
Both the blossoms and the leaves of the cherry tree are edible, and it is customary in Japan to salt and pickle them before using them in sweets. The flavour profile of Japanese sweets is particular, and one that is appreciated less outside Japan. However, the flavour of sakura (cherry blossom), when unsalted and unpreserved, is delicate, floral without being cloying, subtle yet distinctive, and hugely evocative. It can be acquired as an essence, which I get shipped from Japan – half the thrill being the arrival of the little package, covered in indecipherable Japanese characters and exotic postage stamps.
I love the flavour of sakura with black sesame, another pillar of Japanese cooking. I love the combination of the flavours, but also the striking aesthetic of the most delicate of soft pinks counterpoised by striking flecks of jet black. I also adore it as an infused green tea, called Fleur de Geisha, which I purchase from Palais des The on Wicklow Street.
Cherry blossoms are in full bloom in Ireland now, and can be viewed at the Japanese Gardens, at the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin (where these photos were taken) as well as dotted around the country at random. One of my favourite sights is the row of exuberant blossoms outside Heuston Station, an oasis of beauty punctuating the degraded industry of the south-west quays and the soulless commuter corridor of the N4.
Cherry blossoms lined the road on which I grew up in Surrey, which remains in my mind the most beautiful place on earth. It is ironic that they are a symbol of transience, because in the Alington Grove of my memory, they are in constant bloom.
Words, photos and styling by Kate Packwood
**For more information on Hanami and other aspects of Japanese culture and cooking, please explore Fiona’s Japanese Cooking, a wonderful blog dedicated entirely to these matters.