Sakura is the Japanese term for flowering cherry trees — Prunus serrulata — that produce beautiful cherry blossoms for a short time each spring. These trees are different from the species of cherry tree that produces cherry fruit.

Their natural beauty and powerful symbolism, as well as their prominent use in Japanese art, have made cherry blossoms an icon of the cultural identity of Japan. In fact, some consider cherry blossoms to be the informal national flower of Japan.

Every year, the Japanese track the progress of the blossoming of the cherry trees. The sakura zensen, or cherry blossom front, moves slowly north with warmer weather, starting in Okinawa in January and progressing to Kyoto and Tokyo by the beginning of April.

As the cherry trees begin to bloom in each area, the Japanese enjoy hanami, which is the tradition of picnicking under a blooming cherry tree to view their natural beauty. The hanami tradition dates back many centuries and represents a joyous time of festivals and celebrations in honor of the beauty of the cherry blossoms.

Most Japanese schools feature cherry blossom trees. Because the school year begins in April each year, the first day of school often coincides with the cherry blossom season.

Unfortunately, the beauty of the cherry blossoms lasts but a short time. Sometimes the cherry blossoms last only a week or so.

The way they bloom all at once and die out shortly thereafter has come to be a powerful symbol in Japan of our human mortality and how short and precious life can be.

Because of their powerful symbolism and natural beauty, cherry blossoms are used often in Japanese art, as well as in the design of all sorts of consumer goods. The Japanese view cherry blossoms as omens of good luck, love and springtime.

But Japan is not the only place you can find these beautiful cherry trees. In 1912, Japan gave more than 3,000 cherry trees to the United States as a gift to celebrate the countries' friendship.

The trees were planted in Sakura Park in New York City, as well as along the shore of the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., near where the Jefferson Memorial now sits.

In the United States, the Japanese cherry trees are a popular tourist attraction. Each spring, hundreds of thousands of people enjoy the trees' beauty during the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival.

Japanese cherry trees can also be found in large numbers in many other U.S. cities, including San Diego, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Macon, Georgia.

So is all the fun over when the cherry blossoms fall? Not quite! Cherry blossoms are edible. Many Japanese pickle cherry blossoms in salt and vinegar to use as food ingredients!

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