Space Cherry Tree Stuns With Rapid Growth
April 14, 2014

Botanists Baffled By Stunning Growth Of ‘Space Cherry Tree’

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

A cherry tree sapling growing from seeds that were sent to space by Japanese scientists in 2008 has stunned botanists with its astonishing growth, as its buds have appeared about six years earlier than usual.

According to Julian Ryall of the South China Morning Post, cherry trees typically take about a decade before their buds first appear, but the one resulting from a pip sent to the International Space Station five years ago as part of a Japan Manned Space Systems project somehow managed to accomplish the feat in less than half that time.

The seed was one of 265 from the legendary Chujohimeseigan-zakura cherry tree, located at the Ganjoji Temple grounds in Higashiomi, that were selected as part of the mission. Astronaut Koichi Wakata took the cherry pips with him when he arrived on the ISS six years ago, conducted a series of experiments and then brought them back to Earth with him in July 2009, Ryall added.

While in space, the seeds circled our planet over 4,000 times, said Fred Nathan of The Telegraph. Since its return, it has grown to 13 feet and produced nine flowers, each of which have only five petals. In contrast, the approximately 1,250-year-old “yamazakura” wild cherry tree from which it originates produces around 30 petals on each of its flowers, he added.

“We are amazed to see how fast it has grown,” Masahiro Kajita, chief priest at the Ganjoji Temple in Gifu where the tree currently resides, said during a telephone interview with AFP reporter Shigemi Sato on Friday. “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.”

So what caused this so-called “space cherry” tree to bloom? One theory, according to USA Today, is that “space rays” could have impacted the plant’s physiology in some way. A botanist affiliated with the project suggests that the environment of space could have impacted “agents in the seeds” responsible for budding, adding that the growth could foretell a future in which crops could be sent to space in order to grow more quickly.

“There is a theoretical possibility that the cosmic environment has had a certain impact on agents in the seeds that control budding and the growth process, but we have absolutely no answer as to why the trees have come into bloom so fast,” Kaori Tomita, a 56-year-old botanist and lecturer at the University of Tsukuba who participated in the project, told Asahi Shimbun staff writer Takaya Kobayashi.

However, as Engadget’s Terrence O’Brien explained on Sunday, it will likely be difficult to determine what is behind the tree’s rapid growth: “Since the project involving the seeds was not a true experiment, and more a stunt to pique the interest of children, there is no control group to compare against. In fact, there's very little data at all for the scientists to work with.”