One cherry tree has botanists scrambling for answers. The plant in question — dubbed the “space cherry tree” — spent eight months as a sapling in the International Space Station (ISS) from 2008 to 2009. After its unique care, the space tree bloomed in just four years — six years earlier than the average cherry tree. Being “one of 265 cherry pits from a Japanese tree thought to be 1,250 years old,” according to USA Today, only adds to its mystery.
“It is difficult for us to judge why this has happened, but one reason the tree has grown so fast may be related to space rays,” University of Tsukuba researcher, Kaori Tomita-Yokotani, said in an interview with The South China Morning Post. “We have to study this further and repeat our experiments on earth to try to understand the mechanisms that are at work.”
After it “came back to Earth in July the following year with Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, after circling the globe 4,100 times,” the tree sprouted nine flowers, Discovery News reports. By comparison the ancient parent tree contained up to 30 blossoms. Researchers transported other cherry stones to and from the space station, with similar results. Fourteen cherry tree pips — all with eight months of exposure to space rays — blossomed years early.
Tomita-Yokotani admits that a prolonged stay in the ISS may not be the only contributing factor. Cross-pollination, Tomita-Yokotani explains, could also speed up the growth of these particular cherry trees.
“It would definitely be beneficial,” explains Nicole Onstott, President and Owner of Artistic Group. “The nurseries only have availability at certain times of year. If there was a way of expediting tree growth, it would not only lower costs, but it would also allow for a more broad selection of planting throughout the area.”