There a mysterious incident right now in Japan – where it’s currently cherry blossom season – that is baffling scientists and monks alike: a cherry tree grown from a seed that spent time in space has grown and produced flowers a full six years ahead of normal cherry trees. The cherry tree in question is four years old, grown from a group of cherry seeds (stones) that went up to the International Space Station (ISS). The question in Japanese scientists’ heads is how the tree, on April 1st of this year, produced blossoms only 4 years into its existence.
“We are amazed to see how fast it has grown,” Masahiro Kajita, chief priest at the Ganjoji temple in Gifu, said. The wonder seed was among 265 stones harvested from the famous Chujo-hime-seigan-zakura tree, part of a project to gather seeds from different kinds of cherry trees all across Japan and then sent to the ISS in November 2008. The seeds came back to in July 2009 with Japanese astronaut after circling the globe 4,100 times. Some of the seeds were sent for lab tests, but the majority of them were sent back from the places they came from, including the ones from Ganjoji temple which were planted in the temple’s cherry tree nurseries. One can imagine the surprise when the “space cherry tree” – which by now had grown to around 13 feet – suddenly produced nine flowers on its fourth year when normally, a cherry tree of this variety produces flowers approximately on its 10th year. To top it off, the Ganjoji temple sapling is not alone in this phenomenon – four other “space cherry trees” have blossomed early.
Kaori Tomita-Yokotani, a researcher at the University of Tsukuba who took part in the project, said that most scientists who were aware of the phenomenon were stumped by the mystery, including herself. “We still cannot rule out the possibility that it has been somewhat influenced by its exposure to the space environment,” she said. “Of course, there is the possibility that exposure to stronger cosmic rays accelerated the process of sprouting and overall growth,” she said. “From a scientific point of view, we can only say we don’t know why.”
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