Why Are Japan’s Cherry Blossom Trees Blooming in Fall?

Two typhoons followed by warm weather may have triggered Japan’s iconic trees to blossom months ahead of schedule

richard evea/Flickr

Each spring, Japan is crowned with a fluttery wreath of pink cherry blossoms, which draw crowds of admirers and inspire many celebrations. But this year, as Laurel Wamsley reports for NPR, the country’s cherry blossoms have made an unexpected second appearance—in the middle of fall.

More than 350 people reported seeing the ephemeral flowers this autumn, though it isn’t clear if or to what extent the reports overlap. According to Japanese broadcaster NHK, the blossoms have been sighted in an area stretching from Kyushu, in western Japan, to Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands.

Recent extreme weather events, including two typhoons that hit Japan in September and early October, are the likely force behind the unusual bloom. Hiroyuki Wada of the Flower Association of Japan tells NHK that the Yoshino cherry tree, which puts on a particularly lovely display of blossoms, buds in the summer, but hormones in the trees’ leaves stop the buds from opening until spring. This year, however, typhoons whipped the leaves from the cherry blossom trees, or otherwise exposed the trees to salt that caused their leaves to wither. The lack of hormones to keep the buds in check, coupled with warm temperatures that followed the storms, prompted the buds to blossom.

“This has happened in the past,” Wada tells NHK, “but I don’t remember seeing anything on this scale.”

Japan’s love for its cherry blossom trees stretches all the way back to the 8th century, when strolling among the beautiful flowers was a favorite pastime of the aristocracy. The democratization of cherry-blossom appreciation occurred later, in the 18th century, when Japan’s esteemed ruler Tokugawa Yoshimune planted cherry blossom trees in public spaces in Tokyo (known then as Edo).

Though the recent bloom is particularly anomalous, the cherry blossoms’ flowering date has been creeping earlier and earlier over the past 150-odd years, Jason Samenow of the Washington Post reported last year. In Kyoto in 1850, for instance, the average bloom date was April 17. Today, the average date is around April 6. Various factors affect the trees’ blooming period, but “the warmer it is in March, the earlier the cherry blossoms bloom,” Samenow writes.

The buds that are flourishing now in Japan won’t open again in the spring, but fortunately, the proportion of blossoms that have opened in recent days is relatively small. So, Wada tells NHK, the unseasonal bloom is not likely to affect the splendor of the cherry blossoms next spring.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.