If asked what the national tree of Japan is, I would answer sakura, the Japanese flowering cherry, which belongs to the very large genus Prunus. There are many places throughout the country where one can view these beautiful trees, but for those wishing to compare many different varieties at one time, a visit to Tama Forest Science Garden is a must.

The Tama Science Garden’s cherry trees are in bloom from February until May.

Located west of central Tokyo in Hachioji City, the garden features a Japanese cherry preservation woodland with 250 sakura cultivars (saibai-hinsu) and a total of 2,000 trees, along with two arboretums and an experimental forest. The garden is 57 hectares, or three times the size of Hibiya Park, and falls within the Takao-Jinba Natural Park, which has a total area of 1,959 hectares.

I visited the garden in mid-April last year with the aim of seeing the late-flowering cherry trees at their very best. The cherry preservation woodland, which was established in 1966, has an area of 8 hectares and is used for ongoing research into the classification and naming of sakura. The cherry trees are planted on the slopes of the steep hills that run through the garden, helping to create a natural atmosphere. Because there are so many different types of cherry trees, the flowering season is very long: The earliest bloom around the end of February, and a succession of others continue to bloom right up until mid-May.

The blossom of the itokukuri

One of the first trees to bloom is a variety of the Japanese hill cherry (kan-zakura, Prunus kanzakura), which has light-pink, single flowers (hito-e) with only five petals. The latest bloomer is the Miyama cherry (miyama-zakura, Prunus maximowiczii), which grows abundantly in the mountain areas of Tohoku and has cream-white, single flowers.

On the day I visited, the Ichihara tora-no-o (another cultivar of the Japanese hill cherry, Prunus jamasakura c.v. Ichihara) were in full bloom, providing a spectacular sight. First discovered growing in Ichihara, a suburb of Kyoto, this tree is small and has spreading branches. Flowers are red and white when they first open, and turn pure white when in full flower, almost smothering the whole tree. Individual flowers are between 3 cm and 4.8 cm wide, and each contains approximately 38-50 petals. In Tokyo, Ichihara begins to flower in mid-April.

The garden’s two arboretums have a combined area of 7 hectares, and contain 860 species of Japanese trees and 226 trees from abroad. There are some lovely specimens of the katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum), which has heart-shaped leaves with shallow, round teeth, and of the Chinese redbud (hanazuo, Cercis chinensis), which has leaves similar in shape and is cultivated for its beautiful, dark-pink flowers in spring.

You can see two species of Japanese beech — Japanese blue beech (inu-buna, Fagus japonica) and Japanese beech (buna, F. crenata) — growing side by side, making it very easy to study the morphological differences between the two species. The bark of the Japanese blue beech has a bubbly texture, whereas the Japanese beech has a nice, smooth gray trunk. There are also no less than 25 species of maple (kaede, Acer species), which must be a lovely sight in autumn.

The experimental forest has an area of 26 hectares and contains 26 species of forest trees, grown for research purposes. Visitors must obtain advance permission to enter this section of the garden. It is open all year, except March, and visitors must be accompanied by a guide. Tours begin at 1 p.m., and a full tour takes about two hours. Visitor numbers are restricted to 15 per day.

The oldest silviculture, or man-made plantation (zorin), in Japan can be found in this forest, of loblolly pine from the United States (taeda-matsu, Pinus taeda). There is also an unusual plantation of katsura and Japanese walnut (onigurumi, Juglans ailanthifolia) that is carefully protected because it is home to the Japanese squirrel (risu, Sciusus). The Japanese walnut trees and Japanese big-leaf magnolias (honoki, Magnolia obovata) are among the oldest trees in the garden at approximately 86 years. There is also a plantation of maidenhair trees (icho, Ginkgo biloba) that turn golden in the autumn.

For bird-lovers, the garden is home to 80 species of wild birds. Some are migratory and others are resident. During spring, you will hear the calls of the bush warbler (uguisu, Cettia diphone) and the little cuckoo (hototogisu, Cuculus poliocephalus). Incidentally, there is also a lovely woodland herbaceous perennial called hototogisu (Tricyrtis hirta), which you can see growing in the damper parts of arboretum No. 2.

The garden’s main entrance building serves as an education center, where visitors can check out the names of plants they may have seen around the garden.