The Hamilton Spectator

Cherry Tree Debate Blossoms in Korea

- This article is by John Yoon, Mike Ives and Hisako Ueno.

GYEONGJU, South Korea — Shin Joon Hwan, an ecologist, walked among cherry trees on the verge of blooming recently, examining the fine hairs around their dark red buds.

The flowers in Gyeongju, South Korea, belong to a common Japanese variety called the Yoshino, or Tokyo cherry. Mr. Shin’s advocacy group wants to replace those trees with a kind that it insists is native to South Korea, called the king cherry.

“These are Japanese trees that are growing here, in the land of our ancestors,” said Mr. Shin, 67, a former head of South Korea’s national arboretum.

Mr. Shin’s nascent project is the latest wrinkle in a complex debate over the origins of South Korea’s cherry trees. The science has been entangled with more than a century of nationalis­t propaganda and genetic evolution.

During Japan’s rule over the Korean Peninsula, from 1910 to 1945, Yoshinos were planted as part of an effort to instill “cultural refinement” in colonial subjects, said David Fedman, the author of the book “Seeds of Control.”

Yoshinos have been intertwine­d with the thorny politics of colonialis­m ever since. South Koreans have occasional­ly cut them down in protest. And some argue that Yoshinos should be replaced with king cherries — distinguis­hable by the lack of hair on their buds — claiming the latter are more Korean.

In the early 1900s, Japanese scientists described king cherries, found on Jeju Island, south of the Korean Peninsula, as the parent of the Yoshino. The claim that Yoshinos originated on Jeju motivated South Koreans to spread them throughout the country in the 1960s.

Scientists have since debunked that theory. But another — that king cherries are Korean — lives on.

The theory has its own critics. Wybe Kuitert, a retired professor of environmen­tal studies at Seoul National University, said that “king cherry” refers to a set of hybrids, not a species with a defined habitat. “In such a mess of hybrids, which is the correct one?” he said. “You don’t know. You can’t decide it by genomic sequences or DNA sampling.”

But Seung-Chul Kim, an American plant taxonomist at Sungkyunkw­an University in South Korea, said the initiative to replace Yoshinos was worthwhile. Even if the evolutiona­ry trajectory of king cherries is unclear, he said, they evolved independen­tly on Jeju.

His group aspires to replace all of the country’s Yoshinos by 2050.

“I’d like to see Yoshino cherries go away,” said JinOh Hyun, the group’s secretary general, a botanist who propagates king cherries in Jecheon.

Two arborists in Japan said that they respected South Korean efforts to replace Yoshinos.

“Cherry trees alone have no meaning,” said one, Nobuyuki Asada, the secretary general of the Japan Cherry Blossom Associatio­n. “That depends on how people choose to see and manage them.”

 ?? CHANG W. LEE/THE NEW YORK TIMES ?? Japanese cherry trees are common in South Korea. Some are unhappy with that.
CHANG W. LEE/THE NEW YORK TIMES Japanese cherry trees are common in South Korea. Some are unhappy with that.

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