Ephemeral Bloomers, The Rise & Fall of the Cherry Blossoms

By Rachel Swanwick

Cherry Blossom Flowers. Photo Credit: WikiCommons

As the spring season comes into full force throughout much of the northern hemisphere, one particular flower has become emblematic of this time of year, the cherry blossom. However the fate of the cherry tree was not always so certain.

At the turn of the 20th century, Japan’s policies of growth meant abandoning its feudal past, and utilizing cherry tree habitat, for agricultural land and urban development. To compound this loss, the Japanese then began to favor a fast growing variety of cherry tree known as Somei-yoshino, which soon became dominant among the landscape. This drastic loss of cherry tree habitat and biodiversity put the species at major risk of extinction.

During this time, Collingwood Ingram, a British ornithologist, developed a singular obsession with the cherry tree. Ingram was dismayed when he learned of the cherry tree monoculture implemented in Japan and vowed to preserve the tree’s rich history. He journeyed to Japan to learn more about the cherry tree, collected grafts, and urged Japanese leaders to preserve species diversity despite an emerging culture of homogeneity in Japan. Soon Ingram became the leading voice on cherry tree conservation, aiming to restore the tree to its prior glory, and save it from the brink of extinction.

By the 1930s, Ingram’s personal garden in England, yielded more than 79 varieties of cherry tree. His collection included a variety of cherry, known as the Taihaku, (Great White Cherry), which had become extinct in Japan. Ultimately, the Taihaku and a multitude of other forgotten cherry trees were reestablished as a result of Ingram’s efforts. He singularly preserved a heterogeneous composition of cherry varieties, by reestablishing species diversity to this quintessential tree, in Japan and throughout the world. In Japanese culture the short blooming time of the cherry blossom represents the transience of life. A stark metaphor given the uncertain future for thousands of species internationally that are on the brink of extinction today.

Cherry blossom viewing in Maruyama Park, Kyoto. Photo Credit: WikiCommons

The Era of Human Impact

Just as our world almost lost cherry tree diversity, today we are being confronted with large-scale losses of biodiversity throughout all kingdoms of life. Environmentalists and geologists are beginning to call the present era of Earth’s history, the Anthropocene. A time period characterized by human impact on our planet that is visible in rock strata; leading to undeniable evidence of large scale anthropogenic effects on our planets processes. Homo sapiens are the only species to have had such a monumental impact on earth to usher in a entirely new geological epoch.

So what does the Anthropocene mean for the species today?

Scientists have determined that our planet is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals. Making us witness to the worst species die off since the dinosaurs. Estimates now report that almost 99% of all threatened species are at risk from human activities such as habitat loss, invasive species growth, pollution, and climate change. Although species extinction is a natural part of evolutionary processes; the rate, scale, and time frame of what scientists are reporting are unique to present day. Throughout earth’s history extinction tended to place over the course of thousands of years. Yet today we are seeing a rapidly growing number of species move from at risk to extinction in only a few hundred years, due to anthropogenic impacts on the environment.

Mourning cloak butterfly getting it's fill of nectar from a cherry blossom. Photo Credit: WikiCommons

For the Sake of the Planet

As extinctions become more widespread, our delicate ecological web will likely begin to unravel. Species that once played key roles in providing essential ecosystem services will no longer be able to contribute. A balanced ecosystem is dependent on the individual roles that each species provides to important outcomes such as pollination, soil health, and food resources. Ultimately, biodiversity is a key player in allowing for this ecosystem resilience. As species continue to go extinct, they have the potential to increase at an exponential rate. This will result in detrimental effects to the ecosystems and the ecosystem services they provide that are necessary to sustaining human life. Presently coastal marine ecosystems and oceans are predicted to be the highest risk regions for extinction events.

Due to an increasing number of species that are at risk for extinction, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has been identifying a Red List of Threatened Species since 1964. This list has become the most comprehensive guide to understanding the conservation status of species throughout the world (IUCN). By understanding what areas and species are most at risk, conservationists, policy makers, and institutions are able to best identify what needs protecting.

Today, there are over 97,000 species on the Red List whose futures are at risk. According to the IUCN’s assessments “more than 27,150 [species] are threatened with extinction, including 40% of amphibians, 34% of conifers, 33% of reef building corals, 25% of mammals, and 14% of birds” (IUCN). Funds for widespread conservation are limited throughout the world; making the Red List a key tool in deriving a targeted approach for recovery and restoration efforts.

Cherry blossoms at the Isuzugawa-Tsutsumi. Photo Credit: WikiCommons

A Passionate Course to Action

The science supporting a sixth mass extinction as a result of climate change continues to mount; making it a critical time to take action and protect the most vulnerable species which are at risk. Although, the effects of biodiversity loss may not be felt on an everyday level by most, the drive of populations to extinction today is truly unprecedented. There is both an environmental need as well as an economic reality to species loss that will ultimately impact food, water, and energy resources that our ever growing human population relies on.

Presently, we find ourselves in need of Ingram’s spirit to preserve our planet for future generations and the vast array of species that call it home. Collingwood Ingram turned his cherry tree passion into a conservation movement, that led to the preservation of the cultural relevance, and biodiversity of an entire species. His message of action and stewardship echoes proudly into today’s landscape, as individuals, and collective groups are beginning to mount a global environmental movement. One which gives voice to the species and planet that has been silenced for too long.



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