As part of an educational program for Japanese children, several cherry tree stones (the hard inner layer that contains the seed) were carried to the International Space Station by Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata in November 2008. Once returned to earth, the seeds were planted in various locations throughout Japan with expectations that the cherry trees would mature and blossom several years later. Surprisingly, and with no scientific explanation, the plants somehow blossomed years earlier than expected – and with a bizarre flower formation that nobody has seen before.
The cherry tree stones were collected from dozens of trees across Japan with a carefully timed plan in place. Once the seeds returned to Earth (after eight months orbiting in space), the children would replant them and marvel when ten years later, the cherry trees blossomed for the first time – just in time for the children to come of age. To the surprise of scientists and the Buddhist brothers at the ancient temple in central Japan where the young sapling began to grow, the cherry tree blossomed a full six-years earlier than should have been possible.
As of April 1, 2014, the “space cherry tree” has already grown to about 13 feet tall and in addition to its freakish growth, has produced an unusual, mutant flower too. Normal cherry tree blossoms contain a bountiful 30 petals per flower. The space cherry tree, however, has unusual five-petal blossoms. Tomita-Yokotani, a plant physiologist, said experts say there’s no scientific explanation for why the temple tree has grown so fast.
“We still cannot rule out the possibility that it has been somewhat influenced by its exposure to the space environment… 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.”
The South China Morning Post reports that other pits that made the journey into space have also bloomed ahead of schedule. For now, there are no answers, only theories. Yokotani says “space rays” could have had some kind of effect but a botanist working on the project posits that “agents in the seeds that control budding” could have been altered by the space environment and notes the growth could point to an agricultural future in which crops are grown more quickly – in space.