Cherry blossoms in Toronto are a fleeting gift from Japan.
Specifically, the three cherry blossom trees in front of the Ontario Legislature at Queens Park are a gift from the Japanese Consulate dating back to 2005. Every year the trees bloom for just a week or two around May, and every year people come from far and wide in Toronto to adore the delicate pink flowers. There are cherry blossom trees scattered across the city, but the most popular spot is at High Park. You can also find cherry blossom trees at Trinity-Bellwoods, beside Robarts Library at the University of Toronto, Centre Island, and across the GTA like at Kariya Park in Mississauga. This spring tradition is not only limited to Japan, but it is now a global, beloved affair.
Admiring the cherry blossoms feels different this year. It’s common for people to view the cherry blossoms with family or friends, but a gathering of more than two people is not allowed. A picnic under the trees is out of the question. The Ontario government implemented a quarantine on March 17, 2020 to prevent Covid-19 from spreading, and we’ve been instructed to go outside only if absolutely necessary. I went to see the trees alone early in the morning so I wouldn’t expose myself to others, but spending time outside and enjoying it feels almost criminal.
In fact, the City of Toronto closed High Park from April 30 to May 10 to prevent crowds from forming. Physical barriers were up at all park entrances to stop cars from entering, and trespassers faced a fine of $750 or more. There was a “Virtual Blossom Viewing” with live cherry blossom tours to accommodate for the shut down, but you can’t package the calming, happy feeling of being outside in nature on your laptop. Public morale definitely went downhill from there, but this is the world that we temporarily live in until life goes back to normal – whatever that looks like!
Despite the pandemic, the trees keep on growing, the flowers keep blooming, and the sun continues to shine. Cherry blossoms, or sakura, are culturally significant in Japan as they are tied to Japan’s culture, history and identity. Apparently, in ancient Japan farmers used the blooming of the sakura flowers to help them know it was time to plant their rice crops. Today, Japanese people have flower watching parties known as ‘hanami’ all across Japan and some women dress up in traditional kimonos to appreciate the flowers which represent hope, beauty and new life.
In addition to being culturally significant, cherry blossom trees are ecologically valuable. Native birds like American Robins, Northern Cardinals and Baltimore Orioles will sip up nectar from the flowers. Small mammals will feed off of the small fruits of the Yoshino and Akebono cherry trees. Trees in general have so many benefits – they provide food and shelter for wildlife, they clean pollutants in the air and produce oxygen for us to breathe, they provide shade to humans, they store carbon, and the list goes on. Cherry blossoms are very important in our urban forest.
After a short week or so, the petals will fall. There are some petals already on the ground, and in a couple of days all the flowers will be gone. We’ll have to wait another year to enjoy the cherry blossoms again, but we won’t forget the timeless beauty of these flowers. I think people appreciate sakura viewings so much more because they remind us that nothing is permanent in life, and that we should be grateful for the things we have in this moment in time.