Cherry blossoms are simply the flowers of cherry trees, known for their beautiful appearance. They have become iconic symbols of springtime, and there are parts of the world where their blossoming is an enormous tourist event. Japan is particularly known for its cherry blossoms, with numerous festivals throughout the nation celebrating the beauty and aesthetic of the trees in relation to their surrounding environment.
Although trees that actually bear cherry fruit also produce cherry blossoms, many of the cultivars most known for their flowers are in fact infertile. These are known as ornamental cherries, and have been bred to have especially beautiful blossoms, at the expense of fruit itself. In these cultivars, the reproductive stamens and pistils of the trees are instead replaced by an extra set of petals, so that they are sometimes referred to as double flowered trees. Although there are multiple ornamental cultivars, by far the most commonly planted is the Kanzan variety.
There are many different varieties of cherry blossoms, ranging in color, size, and growing temperament. In Japan alone there are more than two-hundred distinct cultivars, with most only slightly different from one another. Although they can most easily be broken into two groups, the ornamental and fruiting varieties, cherry trees may also be divided according to their color, which can range from an almost pure white to a rich and vibrant pink.
The viewing of cherry blossoms has been an important pastime historically in a number of countries, but none have taken to it quite like the Japanese. An 8th century chronicle reports cherry blossom festivals as far back as the 3rd century, although it is entirely possible that the practice was adopted from China quite a bit later than this. At least by the late-8th century, however, trees were being planted widely throughout Japan exclusively for the viewing of the cherry blossoms.
Every year in Japan, the warm weather fronts that enable the blossoming of the cherry trees are tracked as they head north. As each region is set into bloom, it is celebrated, and massive festivals are held in both cities and the rural countryside alike. Parties are held around the nation as the cherry blossoms come into bloom, with people gathering at temples, public parks, and small shrines to view the flowers and celebrate.
The cherry blossom has a great deal of symbolic significance to the Japanese people, and has historically been an important symbol of nationalism. Although superficially the blossoms are representative of the feminine, on a deeper level they can be seen to stand for the transient nature of life. As a result, they have often been used historically as a way of reminding warriors before they go into battle that life is naturally fleeting, and therefore that dying for a good cause is a high form of living. For example, during World War II many suicide bombers would paint the cherry blossom on the side of their plane, to remind them that even things of great beauty fade away quickly.