Finding perennial meanings under Vancouver’s cherry blossom trees

Finding meaning under a cherry blossom tree.| Photo by Simon Yee

Photo by Simon Yee

Cherry blossoms throughout Vancouver have been blooming early this year, giving Vancouverites a great reason to go outdoors, stroll the petal-lined streets and take photographs of the blossoms with friends, family and neighbours. The trees not only beautify the city this time of year, but also provide an occasion for citizens to get together and celebrate the beginning of spring.

For David Tracey, one of the cherry scouts for the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival, spring blooms also provide an occasion for the public to learn about the city’s cultural and historical roots as well as foster environmental awareness and botanical education.

“Trees are more important to us than we sometimes think. It’s easy to ignore them, but they have a lot of meaning, be it cultural, historical, spiritual, environmental or ecological meaning. The love of trees is universal,” says Tracey.

Historical roots

The festival’s tree talk and walk program organizes cherry blossom viewing meet-ups at various cultural or historical locations throughout Vancouver not only to view the cherry blossoms, but to learn about the various cultural and historical significance of the area and the symbolism of the trees planted there.

Tracey, for instance, leads the Strathcona-Oppenheimer Park walk and talk, showcasing the Legacy Sakura trees which were planted in 1977 to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the landing of the Issei, the first generation Japanese immigrants to Canada. There have been previous attempts by the city to remove or relocate the trees to make room for new development or renovations, but the community rallied together to preserve them.

“The shared human affinity we have for trees is one way we get people together that may not otherwise find a cause to get together,” says Tracey. “In the end, it was a success story in that the community cared about and saved their trees.”

Joseph Lin, another cherry scout, leads several talks, including one at Yaletown’s David Lam Park, which is named after B.C.’s 25th lieutenant governor. Lam loved the cherry blossoms and was one of the persons responsible for the abundance of cherry trees Vancouver enjoys today, having helped finance and plant cherry trees at VanDusen, UBC and, of course, David Lam Park.

A day after Lam’s passing in 2010, festival director Linda Poole, quoted Lam’s cherry philosophy of life:

“When you promise to do something, give it all you’ve got and be like the cherry. The cherry tree gives us everything it has: its beauty, fragrance and colour, and asks for nothing in return. Alas, they have but only a short life. They give us everything they have to make us happy. And I am mindful of the shortness of my own life.”

Budding future for the blossoms

Finding meaning under a cherry blossom tree.| Photo by Simon Yee

Finding meaning under a cherry blossom tree.| Photo by Simon Yee

The cherry blossom trees not only serve to inspire and commemorate culture and history, they also contribute to Vancouver’s goal of a green future. One of the goals of the Greenest City 2020 Action Plan, started in 2010, is to make the city the greenest city in the world by 2020 by planting 150,000 new trees, creating new park spaces and ensuring every resident lives within five minutes of a park or other greenspace.

In addition to volunteering with the festival, Tracey also manages his own project, TreeKeepers, a partnership program with the city dedicated to providing affordable trees for residents to plant in their own gardens. Every tree that is planted helps Vancouver grow the urban forest and realize its 2020 goal.

“The festival is great at what it does: getting people out in nature to look at, to study and to appreciate trees,” Tracey says. “And I’m happy to help in whatever way I can.”

Cherry blossom trees joined Vancouver’s native elm, fir, maple and cedar trees thanks to a gift of 500 cherry trees from the Kobe and Yokohama mayors in the early 1930s to honour Japanese Canadians who served in the First World War. In the 1950s and 60s, further cherry trees were planted as a symbol of Japanese-Canadian friendship.

Today, Vancouver’s roughly 40,000 cherry blossoms are part of the city’s 138,000 public trees, helping to make Vancouver one of the greenest cities in the world.