In November 2008, 265 pits collected from various cherry trees from 14 locations across Japan, were sent to the International Space Station. The endeavor was part of an educational and cultural project to demonstrate to kids, how seeds can continue to live and grow, even after a jaunt to space. The seeds that circled the globe 4,100 times during their four-month mission, returned to earth in March 2009. While some were kept for lab tests most, were returned to their original locations.
Among them were seeds from a 1,250-year-old cherry tree called 'Chujo-hime-seigan-zakura' that resides in Japan's ancient Ganjoji temple. While the Buddhist monks at the temple carefully planted the space-returned seeds, they did not expect much to happen. That's because not a single seed from this ancient tree, believed to be the world's oldest, had ever sprouted.
To their surprise, within four years, the cherry stone has not only turned into a healthy, 4-meter-tall sapling, but even, begun to blossom - a full six years before anyone expected it to. That's because this species of cherry trees take at least ten years to blossom. Also, this is not the only 'space' cherry pit that has sprouted and blossomed so rapidly. Four others in various locations, have done the same. Among them is one in the city of Hokuto, about 115 kilometers from Tokyo. It bore 11 flowers by the time it turned two - a full six years before any blossoms were expected.
Scientists speculate that the faster growth may have something to do with the seeds getting exposed to stronger cosmic rays. But since the researchers were not conducting an experiment to create faster growing seeds, they cannot be sure. Kaori Tomita-Yokotani, a researcher at the University of Tsukub, thinks that the rapid growth could also be caused by cross-pollination with another species.
What's even more interesting is that the nine flowers currently growing on the 'Chujo-hime-seigan-zakura' offspring, comprise of just five petals each - very different from its parent tree whose flowers bear thirty petals apiece. Again, researchers can only speculate as to the reason. They believe that the space trip could have reverted the seeds back to how ancient cherry blossoms used to be. Alternatively, it could also be because the tree has blossomed so immaturely.
While further research will have to be done to verify what if anything happened to the seeds, even the notion that space travel may induce faster growth, has researchers contemplating the possibility of establishing large-scale agricultural plants in outer space. Meanwhile, the monks at the Ganjoli temple are just thrilled to have a healthy offspring, from the world's oldest cherry tree.