It's currently cherry blossom season in Japan, and right now just about everyone in the Land of the Rising Sun is mystified by a tree that has blossomed five years ahead of schedule, from a cherry pit that was launched into space.
It started around 5 years ago, when a cherry stone produced from the fruit of a famous 7th Century Chujohimeseigan-zakura cherry tree, from the Ganjoji temple, was selected as part of a project to gather seeds from different kinds of Japanese cherry trees and launch them into space. The stones were sent to the International Space Station in November 2008 and came back to Earth in July 2009 with Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, after circling the globe 4,100 times.
Some were sent for laboratory tests, but most were shuttled back to their places of origin. A small select few were planted at nurseries near the Ganjoji temple, east of Kyoto, home of the celebrated Chujohimeseigan-zakura.
One four-year-old sapling burst into blossom on April 1 of this year, possibly a full six years ahead of Mother Nature's normal schedule. The 'Space Cherry Tree' now stands approximately 13 feet tall, and yielded 9 cherry blossoms at an age where it should have produced somewhere between zero and zero.
Its early blooming baffled Buddhist monks at the ancient temple.
"We are amazed to see how fast it has grown," Masahiro Kajita, chief priest at the Ganjoji temple, told AFP by telephone.
"A stone from the original tree had never sprouted before. We are very happy because it will succeed the old tree, which is said to be 1,250 years old."
Kaori Tomita-Yokotani, a researcher at the University of Tsukuba who took part in the project, said that most researchers aware of the phenomenon are baffled by the mystery, including herself.
"There is a theoretical possibility that the cosmic environment has had a certain impact on agents in the seeds that control budding and the growth process, but we have absolutely no answer as to why the trees have come into bloom so fast," she said.
Tomita-Yokotani believes cross-pollination with another species could not be ruled out, but a lack of data was hampering an explanation.
"We still cannot rule out the possibility that it has been somewhat influenced by its exposure to the space environment. Of course, there is the possibility that exposure to stronger cosmic rays accelerated the process of sprouting and overall growth. From a scientific point of view, we can only say we don't know why."
Since discovering the phenomenon of the Space Cherry Tree at Ganjoji, reports have come in that four other saplings from the ISS experiment are blossoming at an accelerated rate.