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Cherry blossom emblems could unite people to save forests

Certain species become emblems for nature organizations and conservation projects because they attract the attention of people and help them connect to the natural world. Charismatic species, such as plants with beautiful flowers or large, impressive mammals are often used to capture the imagination of the public and raise funds for protecting endangered species and threatened ecosystems. 

Wild cherry trees and their iconic blossoms have featured in the culture of Japanese people since ancient times. They are represented in ancient writings, plays, arts and festivals, and therefore have a unique significance in connecting people in Japan to the world of nature. For this reason, the Sakuragawa city government chose wild cherries as a symbol for the promotion of local development. The city has long been renowned for the beautiful scenery of its wild cherry species, Cerasus jamasakura and Cerasus leveilleana, so it was logical to choose this symbol to support the city’s projects in Satoyama forest management and environmental education.  

However, wild cherries symbolize different things to different people and so it was important to understand the diverse value perceptions of wild cherries and the ecosystem services they provide. In a new study by researchers from the University of Tsukuba, Ibaraki prefecture, Japan, the perceptions of three social groups towards wild cherry trees and their value were investigated. The survey focused particularly on people’s understanding of Satoyama ecosystems, which is where forests (that include wild cherry trees) are managed for the use of people and nature in harmony. Satoyama forests are common around Sakuragawa city and they are the focus of the city’s forest management projects. 

“Understanding how people perceive the value of symbolic species’ ecosystem services is crucial because these perceptions often affect how land is managed,” said study co-author Professor Ikuyo Saeki. “These perspectives are also key to sustaining links between people and nature, and must be examined if we are to successfully transition to more sustainable societies.”

The researchers used questionnaires to survey 321 participants who were in three categories – adult residents, visiting tourists and high school pupils. Apart from answering questions about themselves and their understanding of Satoyama forests, the participants were asked which of the following eight values of ecosystem services provided by wild cherries they perceive to be important: history, recreation, economy, aesthetic in spring, aesthetic in fall, biodiversity, education, and culture. Their knowledge of the differences between wild cherries and common cultivars was also assessed. 

The results, published in the journal Ecosystems and People, revealed interesting differences between the groups. First, local residents and tourists favored wild cherries more than they did the common cultivar, and the majority of them had basic knowledge of wild cherries and Satoyama. In contrast, many of the high school students did not seem to recognize the difference between wild cherries and the cultivar, and could not describe the characteristics of Satoyama. These results indicate that high school students have limited knowledge of and experience with wild cherries. 

In addition, the residents and tourists placed most value on the ecosystem service termed ‘aesthetic in spring’, when evaluating the role of wild cherry trees, although they also highlighted the historical value of these trees. The high school students, in contrast, ranked multiple values equally, such that no one ecosystem value stood out as more important than the others. The sites renowned for their wild cherry scenery were highly valued by local residents and tourists, but not by students, who placed more value on urbanized areas.

According to the study authors, the results suggest most of the students were not able to discriminate among the values due to limited knowledge of wild cherries. “A majority of students commuted from outside of the city and expressed little interest in outdoor recreation. Thus, they likely had fewer opportunities to learn about and visit wild cherry sites in Sakuragawa city compared to residents and tourists.”

The researchers draw two important conclusions from their findings. For successful conservation of Satoyama forests in future, it will be important to share the diverse values, which are appreciated by local residents and knowledgeable visitors, with younger generations. This could be done through education and taking high school pupils on outings to the forests, instead of focusing on places of historical and cultural significance in the urban environment. 

In addition, the wild cherry and its blossoms could be a successful symbol of local conservation projects as this tree is highly visible in the Satoyama forests and is a key species in the ecosystem. The maintenance of Satoyama landscapes is challenging because it requires a large labor force and cooperation from land owners and local communities, and the use of wild cherries as a symbol would serve to attract people’s attention and encourage their consistent support of conservation work. 

“While symbolic species enhance the way people value nature, filling gaps in knowledge and ensuring that a variety of values are shared within local communities is key to the promotion of community-based management of wild cherry landscapes,” said Professor Saeki.

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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