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Rather than wading into the debate as to whether a tree covered in beautiful cherry blossoms or a piece of cutting edge technology is the more representative symbol of Japan, you could split the difference by awarding the title to one of the sakura cherry trees grown from seeds that were taken into space. Not only do they combine the country’s admiration of both nature and innovation, their seeds’ journey to the stars seems to have imparted some of them with the amazing ability to bloom in just half the time of regular cherry trees.

When Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata left our planet for the International Space Station in November of 2008, he took with him seeds collected from sakura trees standing in 13 different parts of Japan, stretching from Hokkaido in the north to Okinawa in the south. After eight months and 4,100 orbits of Earth, Wakata returned home to Japan, along with the seeds. A portion of them were sent to research labs for further study, but the rest were sewn in the areas they had originally been taken from.

One tree the seeds were originally taken from was the Chujohime Seiganzakura on the grounds of Ganjoji Temple in Gifu City. The temple was founded in 672, and the tree is nearly as old, with experts estimating its age at 1,200 years.

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Local botanical groups were only able to successfully breed descendants from the tree through grafting, as none of the seeds taken from it have sprouted after being sewn. Well, all except one, a seed from the Chujohime Seiganzakura that made the trip to space and back. Not only has the space sakura grown to four meters (13 feet, 1 inch) in height, flowers recently bloomed on the tree.

Generally, sakura blooming in the spring don’t shock anyone, given that all of Japan anxiously waits for the arrival of the cherry blossoms every year. The four-year-old Gifu space sakura managed to catch scientists and caretakers off guard, though, as ordinarily cherry trees of this type don’t produce blossoms until they reach a decade or so in age.

▼ Gifu’s space sakura, looking mighty dandy

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The tree’s freshman effort could be a little more robust, as it only produced nine flowers, each bearing just five petals in comparison to the 30 that are common for the species. Quantity quibbles aside, though, researchers are still amazed at the appearance of the blossoms in less than half the normal time.

▼ A normal cluster of Chujohime Seiganzakura flowers

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Gifu’s space sakura isn’t alone in its rapid pace of development, either, as blossoms have been reported in four other locations where the seeds Wakata brought back were planted.

▼ The Maniwa City Hall’s space sakura in Okayama Prefecture

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▼ More space sakura in Ise City in Hyogo Prefecture

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Scientists aren’t exactly sure why the trees in question are exhibiting such extraordinarily quick development. One researcher was quoted as saying that while it’s yet to be confirmed, they have to at least acknowledge the possibility that the environmental influences of space have somehow altered the plants’ DNA or stimulated their cells in as yet undetected ways, giving them capabilities beyond that of their earthbound brethren.

We say if the explanation is good enough for some of America’s most famous comic book superheroes, it’s good enough for Japan’s most iconic trees.

Source: Kaparia
Top image: Kaparia
Insert images: Kaparia, Senkuni