How an Englishman saved Japan’s Cherry-Blossoms

Yes, you read that headline correctly. Though there’s hardly any symbol more associated with Japan than the ethereal cherry blossoms, it was actually an Englishman who is directly responsible for the plethora of Cherry Blossom Trees we have in Japan today.


While the whole country is blooming right now, and thousands of people relax and party under the fleeting beauty of the Cherry Blossom trees during this season, less than a century ago, Japan was on the cusp of losing its national flower forever.

A still relatively unknown name these days, wealthy Aristocrat Collingwood Ingram, became fascinated with Japan’s Flora and Fauna and would play a pivotal role in saving Japan’s national symbol from dying out.
Born in 1880, Ingram was an ornithologist turned cherry tree specialist, and ultimately became responsible for saving many of the varieties of Japanese cherry that would otherwise have become extinct.
Quite a few varieties of cherry trees disappeared when feudal lords abandoned their large estates, where these trees were grown, in the latter half of the 19th century.

Ingram travelled to Japan for the first time in 1902 and subsequently in 1904, noting with awe that there ‘man adds to, instead of detracts from, the beauty of his country’.
In 1926, he visited for one last time, with the intention of collecting scions and seeds of the diverse species of cherry trees he had witnessed bloom on his earlier trips, for his garden in Kent, England.
In the 1920s–30s, many cherry trees, killed by the Great Kanto Earthquake, and pollution, were replaced with just a single variety – the fast-growing somei-yoshino – partly due to this species’ hardiness and partly as a method of propaganda depicting a symbol of modernity and imperialism.

In the lead up to and during the second world war, emphasis was placed on the short flowering life of the increasingly abundant somei-yoshino, so that the cherry blossom — once the mark of a peaceful, diverse people — became a symbol of a conforming, unified population, willing to die for the emperor.
While many cherry species began to die out in Japan, individualism and free speech were suppressed and restricted as well. It was then, when Ingram’s mission became an urgent one.
Foreseeing the extinction of numerous varieties — caused by dangerous ideologies that would lead to the assassination of the prime minister, militarisation and war — he collected scions and seeds of as many remaining species as he could and sent them to his home, the Grange, in Benenden, where he created a nursery. Over the next decade, he carefully tended to more than 100 varieties.

In Japan, like the short-lived somei-yoshino blossoms, young Japanese men were expected to bloom and fall for the emperor during the war, which is why Kamikaze often used images of blossoms on their planes. The symbol of the cherry was used to ‘glorify and beautify’ the deaths of men, many of whom were still teenagers.

Back in England, Ingram cared for and nurtured his cherry trees, while in Japan, some remaining Sakuramori, or ‘cherry guardians’ — the Japanese word for people who collected and protected cherry trees — struggled to maintain their collections of rare varieties (a treasonous activity during the war).


Naoko Abe

“So Ingram decided to save them himself. He returned to Japan and traveled on horseback, by ship, car and on foot, looking for blossoms he didn’t have.”

He introduced more than 50 cultivated varieties to Britain and is said to be the first person in the world to have created new varieties by artificial hybridization. These included the “Kursar” tree, a fusion of varieties from northern and southern Japan.

The 15th of a line of Sakuramori, Toemon Sano, also risked his life to protect a small selection of the rarest varieties, including the aforementioned scions of the Taihaku (Great White), named after its huge white blossoms. They were repeatedly sent by Ingram to Sano and another Sakuramori, Masuhiko Kayama, but perished each time in transit.

In 1932, however, one was dispatched embedded in a potato, and arrived alive. These blossoms were seen as a chain of friendship between England and Japan. During the war, efforts to preserve species of cherry in both England and Japan read like efforts to preserve friendship — and the symbol of diversity and peace that the cherry tree once was — through desperate times.

Thus, possibly Ingram’s greatest achievement during his lifetime was to restore the Taihaku (great white cherry) to Japan, which was thought to have died out.

Ingram died in 1981 at the age of 100. He was known to many as “Cherry” due to his love of these trees.

For more information about this fascinating tale, please have a look at the newly released book:
‘Cherry’ Ingram: The Englishman Who Saved Japan’s Blossoms, by Naoko Abe.
CHATTO & WINDUS, Nonfiction.