Photo/IllutrationThe Kumano-zakura, photographed in Kushimoto, Wakayama Prefecture, in March 2017 (Provided by the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute)

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WAKAYAMA--A botanist says he has identified a new species of cherry tree in the Kii Peninsula, which, if verified, will be the first to be discovered in the wild in Japan in about a century.

The early-blooming “Kumano-zakura” (Kumano cherry) is thought to be distributed in Wakayama, Nara and Mie prefectures over an area measuring 90 kilometers from north to south and 60 km from east to west.

Toshio Katsuki, 50, who heads the cherry tree preservation team at the Tama Forest Science Garden of the government-affiliated Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute in Tokyo, presented the results of his research here in January.

“The Kumano-zakura has deeper-colored petals, which makes the trees look more brilliant when they are in blossom,” he said. “While I have seen various sorts of cherry trees, I had probably never seen so many of them in the wild that looked so beautiful.”

Katsuki felt something didn’t click with one tree in the southern Kii Peninsula because it was not quite like other cherry trees. He began studying the cherry in earnest in 2016 with the help of other parties, including the Wakayama Prefectural Forestry Experiment Station.

Katsuki quoted one resident of Kozagawa, Wakayama Prefecture, as telling him that the yamazakura (Cerasus jamasakura) blooms twice a year in and around the town. Yamazakura is also known as the Japanese mountain cherry.

Katsuki’s studies found that Kumano-zakura trees bloom from mid-March, followed by yamazakura trees from mid-April.

Local residents thought of the Kumano-zakura as one and the same with the yamazakura and the kasumizakura (Cerasus verecunda), which both grow in the wild in the southern Kii Peninsula.

Katsuki said, however, that the Kumano-zakura blooms earlier and has smaller leaves than the two species, and also has distinct characteristics in parts of the flower and in the flower stalk.

It is believed there are 10 basic species of wild cherry trees in Japan, including the yamazakura and the Oshima-zakura (Cerasus speciosa), although the exact count may depend on which taxonomy is used.

In addition, a large number of cultivars born of artificial crossing or mutation, such as the Somei-Yoshino, are being grown by human hand.

If the Kumano-zakura is classified as a new distinct species, instead of a variety of a known one, it will be the first such instance since the 1910s when wild cherry species including the Oshima-zakura were established, Katsuki said.

A new species must be described in a scientific journal article to be listed as such.

Katsuki has submitted a paper to an English-language journal of the Japanese Society for Plant Systematics, which he expects will be published by the end of this year at the earliest.

A public sighting tour will be organized in Kozagawa in March, with Katsuki serving as the speaker.