The Sakura Obsession by Naoko Abe

The Sakura Obsession: The Incredible Story of the Plant Hunter Who Saved Japan’s Cherry Blossoms By Naoko Abe, published by Knopf, 2019

Americans across the country who are eagerly anticipating their city’s annual cherry blossom festival in early April have a hero without knowing it. His name was Collingwood Ingram, and he was born to a life of monied leisure in 1880. He had the good luck to survive service in the First World War with no injuries and no trauma, but he was in the market for a new obsession (his original, ornithology, having become a bit too crowded for his tastes). That new obsession, and Ingram himself, are the subjects of Japanese journalist Naoko Abe’s wonderful new book The Sakura Obsession, which tells the story of both Ingram’s growing passion for sakura, the many species of Japanese cherry blossoms (documented by Ingram himself in his Ornamental Cherries, among other books and monographs).

Ingram first came to appreciate cherry trees up close at the Grange, the leafy country house he and his wife acquired in Kent, 50 miles south-east of London. There were cherry trees on the property, and trips to Japan in 1902 and 1907 did the rest: Ingram had found his new obsession - not only cherry trees themselves but the preservation of many varieties that were already vanishing in Japan in the early years of the 20th century. Abe captures the breadth of Ingram’s interests in marvelously readable prose that also extends effortlessly to encompass the broader cultural significance of cherry blossoms in Japanese culture. “The symbolism of a beautiful flower that opened and then quickly shed its petals, reflecting the fleeting nature of life,” she writes, “became a key aspect of the narrative that Japanese children were taught from the day they started elementary school at the age of six.” This “cherry ideology” filters into everything from the poetry of the age to the ethos that informed the kamikaze fighters of the Second World War.

Abe’s sympathetic understanding of Ingram’s complex and oddly gentle nature is the consistent strength of The Sakura Obsession, and it makes the book one of the most charming, offbeat biographies to appear in years. And Abe convincingly broadens Ingram’s lifelong obsession (he lived for a century) to include many of the modern concerns for which he was a forerunner:

Ingram was never more passionate than when he wrote about nature’s bounties; never angrier than when he wrote about mankind’s destruction of nature. An environmentalist long before the term became popular, he deplored plant-hunters who selfishly uprooted all the flowers they were seeking. He also resisted what he called ‘rarity snobbism’ - the syndrome of being influenced by a plant’s scarcity rather than by its beauty. And he railed against mankind’s failure to appreciate the Earth’s diversity and to protect its fragility.

The Sakura Obsession tells in enchanting detail one of the most interesting background stories most springtime cherry blossom admirers don’t know when they’re admiring the evanescent beauties in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere. Those admiring crowds have Collingwood Ingram to thank for much of the variety seen in such festivals throughout the world, and now the man himself has an elegant and cheering biography to introduce him to fans he never knew he had.

—Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.