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Cosmic bloom? Early blossom for cherry tree after space trip

Published time: April 11, 2014 10:18
Cherry tree in bloom, grown from a cherry pit that spent time onboard the International Space Station (ISS), at the Ganjoji temple in Gifu city, central Japan. (AFP Photo / Chujo-Hime-Seigan-Zakura Preservation Societ)

Cherry tree in bloom, grown from a cherry pit that spent time onboard the International Space Station (ISS), at the Ganjoji temple in Gifu city, central Japan. (AFP Photo / Chujo-Hime-Seigan-Zakura Preservation Societ)

A four-year-old cherry tree grown from a pit that orbited the Earth for eight months aboard the ISS has burst into blossom in Japan far earlier than usual with very interesting flowers, a riddle that is perplexing local scientists.

The ‘extraterrestrial’ cherry tree was expected to blossom in six years, in 2018, as normally it takes at least 10 years for similar sorts of tree to bear their first buds.

However, in April the ‘space cherry tree’, already grown to around 4 meters tall, suddenly produced nine flowers, reported local media. The blooms’ form was also unusual as each had only five petals, while on the parent tree from which it was taken there were about 30 petals.

The wonder pit was one of around 265 seeds that were harvested from the fruit of the famous 1,250-year-old ‘Chujohimeseigan-zakura’ cherry tree in the compound of an ancient Ganjoji temple. The tree is a variety of the ‘yamazakura’ wild cherry species, and until now, the attempts to grow any sapling from its fruit have been unsuccessful.

The cherry seeds were sent to the ISS in November, 2008 with Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, now commander of the ISS. They were returned to Earth eight months later in July, 2009. A selection of seeds was soon successfully planted by Japanese botanist Takao Yoshimura near the ancient Buddhist Ganjoji temple in Gifu, central Japan.

"We are amazed to see how fast it has grown," Masahiro Kajita, chief priest at the temple, told AFP.

"A stone from the original tree had never sprouted before. We are very happy because it will succeed the old tree, which is said to be 1,250 years old," he added.

Meanwhile, the rest of space-traveling cherry pits were planted in Kochi Prefecture in south-western Japan and Yamanashi in central Japan, and they have already come into bloom as well.

The project, organized by Tokyo-based Japan Manned Space Systems (JAMSS), was aimed at letting children gather the stones and learn how they grow into trees and live on after returning from space, said Miho Tomioka, a spokeswoman for the project's organizer.

She said they, also along with children, who planted the seeds, were expecting the tree to blossom about 10 tears after planting in 2018 when the children who were planning these very trees come of age.

Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata holding a pack of cherry sheeds in the International Space Station on April 13, 2009 (AFP Photo / JAXA)

Meanwhile, the scientists are puzzled by the ‘unearthly’ cherry tree wonder. According to Kaori Tomita-Yokotani, a researcher at the University of Tsukuba in the Kantō region of Japan, she is baffled by the “cherry mystery.”

"We still cannot rule out the possibility that it has been somewhat influenced by its exposure to the space environment," she said.

Plant physiologist Tomita-Yokotani says it is difficult to find an explanation to this rapid growth of the tree, adding that from a scientific point the researchers “can only say they don't know why [this rapid growth happened]."