[Visual History of Korea] Korea’s royal cherry trees bred through cloning science

Flowers of Natural Monument No. 159, one of the oldest royal cherry trees in Jeju Island’s hallasan Photo © Hyungwon Kang

Among a variety of Korean cherry blossoms, one of the most spectacular is the royal cherry which grows naturally in a unique way in Korea.

In April each year, royal cherry blossoms bloom like popcorn from bare branches before the leaves burst from the buds.

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the rest of the world discovered the Korean King cherry blossoms.

Blossoms of one of the oldest royal cherry trees, Natural Monument No. 159, Hallasan Island in Jeju Photo © Hyungwon Kang

Blossoms of one of the oldest royal cherry trees, Natural Monument No. 159, Hallasan Island in Jeju Photo © Hyungwon Kang

After encountering an ancient forest of royal cherry trees on Jeju Island’s Hallasan in 1908, French botanist and Catholic priest Emile Joseph Taquet (1873-1952) sent samples of the Korean royal cherry to his colleagues in Japan and the German researcher Bernhard Adalbert Emil Koehne in Berlin. This is how the royal cherry was scientifically named “Prunus yedoensis var. Nudiflora.

In evolutionary biology, hybridization is part of the process that results in increased plant diversity. The Korean royal cherry tree is such a product of nature.

The royal cherry tree entered the American English lexicon in 1912 as the Yoshino cherry tree, when 1,800 of 3,020 cherry trees were donated by the city of Tokyo to the U.S. capital Washington. Cherry blossoms are considered an unofficial national flower of Japan.

Blossoms of one of the oldest royal cherry trees, Natural Monument No. 156, in its natural habitat on Jeju's Hallasan Island Photo © Hyungwon Kang

Blossoms of one of the oldest royal cherry trees, Natural Monument No. 156, in its natural habitat on Jeju’s Hallasan Island Photo © Hyungwon Kang

Over the next 100 years, Washington saw many Yoshino cherry trees come and go, as they have considerably short lifespans. Old dying trees are often replaced by old branches grafted onto new roots from another tree, as they do not reproduce by seedlings.

Koreans have always valued cherry trees for their valuable wood. Cherry wood has been highly sought after for making bows, musical instruments, and fine furniture. In the dialect of Jeju Island, the word “saogi” or “saok” refers to cherry wood. Jeju Island, along with Daedusan in Haenam, a mountain in South Jeolla Province, is the world’s only known natural habitat for native royal cherry trees.

For decades, the presence of the royal cherry habitat has given Korean researchers bragging rights that the origin of Japanese Yoshino cherry trees may have been Korea, as Japan has been unable to locate a single natural habitat for its famous Yoshino cherry trees for years.

A bee visits royal cherry blossoms in Sancheong, South Gyeongsang Province. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

A bee visits royal cherry blossoms in Sancheong, South Gyeongsang Province. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

But science has finally solved the question of origin.

Genome sequence analysis shows that the Korean royal cherry is a freak of nature: a product of the common Korean Sargent cherry (Prunus sargentii Rehder) as a father and another common weeping cherry (Prunus pendula f. ascendens’ Rosea’) as mother tree.

Sargent Cherry is one of the favorite trees of Koreans for its excellent wood. Over 64% of the 81,352 wooden printing blocks of the precious 13th century Tripitaka Koreana are carved from Sargent cherry wood.

Natural Monument No. 159, one of the oldest native royal cherry trees in Jeju Island's Hallasan Photo © Hyungwon Kang

Natural Monument No. 159, one of the oldest native royal cherry trees in Jeju Island’s Hallasan Photo © Hyungwon Kang

The Japanese Yoshino cherry was a human-made variant, with Oshima zakura (Prunus speciosa) as the father and the Japanese weeping cherry (Prunus itosakura) as the mother.

While their flowers look alike, close comparisons reveal subtle differences. Yoshino cherry blossoms have a longer stem with a cup-shaped base, while Korean King cherry blossoms have shorter flower stems with a wedge-shaped base.

Because the royal cherry trees do not reproduce, grafting its branches to other vibrant Sargent cherry trees or weeping cherry trees has been the only way for it to spread throughout Korea, albeit in the Japanese variant since the Japanese colonial period ( 1910-45).

Young royal cherry trees, clones of one of the oldest royal cherry trees, grow in the Halla Ecological Forest Research Laboratory on Jeju Island. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

Young royal cherry trees, clones of one of the oldest royal cherry trees, grow in the Halla Ecological Forest Research Laboratory on Jeju Island. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

As of 2013, there were only 14 known original royal cherry trees on Hallasan, with hundreds of thousands of other variant royal cherry trees on the island.

Hallasan Eco-Forest researchers have perfected the cloning of DNA samples from one of the oldest original royal cherry trees discovered along the slopes of Hallasan and successfully planted the saplings in 2012.

The Hallasan Eco-Forest Lab now produces 200 to 300 saplings each month, and city workers plant them next to aging royal cherry variant trees along Jeju Island’s roads, in an effort to replace foreign variants over time.

A brown-eared bulbul collects nectar from royal cherry blossoms on Jeju Island. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

A brown-eared bulbul collects nectar from royal cherry blossoms on Jeju Island. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

In 2016, researchers discovered a previously unknown native royal cherry tree on Hallasan, estimated to be around 330 years old. While the ancient tree is being considered for Natural Monument designation, the location of the tree remains undisclosed to the public.

Father Taquet, who arrived as a missionary in Korea on January 5, 1898, sent over 5,000 plant samples overseas, and the proceeds went into his church coffers. The French priest never left Korea and was buried under his Korean name, Um Taek-ki, in Daegu when he died in 1952.

By Hyungwon Kang ([email protected])

Korean American photojournalist and columnist Hyungwon Kang is currently documenting Korean history and culture in pictures and words for future generations. — Ed.

By Korea Herald ([email protected])

About Norman Griggs

Check Also

Use these quick tricks to ripen bananas

When you see a bunch of unripe bananas on the table, there are usually only …