Accompanying the gradually warming weather, the cherry blossom trees along the bike path by Peden Stadium signal that spring is here. 

The trees were donated to Ohio University as a gift from Chubu University in Kasugai, Japan. Ji-Yeung Jang, interim executive director for Global Affairs, said the relationship between Chubu and OU was started by Tomoyasu Tanaka, a physics professor, in the 1970s. After surviving World War II, Jang said, he had a vision of world peace.

“His counterpart, the friend and the research collaborator, happened to be working at Chubu University, so ... this relationship (happened) through personal connections,” Jang said.

Jang said the partnership first began with a faculty exchange program, which started with OU professors going to Chubu. Eventually, she said, the program allowed for Chubu professors to come to Ohio.

“In 1979, Chubu University decided to send us a really nice gift to celebrate our 175th anniversary, and they gave us, literally, 175 cherry trees,” Jang said. “That is so highly regarded, and that was so meaningful and so special.”

A young couple lays beneath the cherry blossoms along the Hocking River in Athens, Ohio, on March 30, 2021.

Though not all of the initial trees were able to survive the change in environment, Chubu sent more so that OU would have 200 total trees to celebrate the bicentennial anniversary in 2004.

“It was their thoughtful and generous gift to the university to really honor and celebrate Ohio University but also to really cement this commitment of this relationship because once you put the trees down, you really want to take care of it,” Jang said. “Since then, this partnership has really grown … We’ve been in full bloom.”

Jang said the universities now have a student and library exchange program. OU is also participating in a restoration project led by Chris Thompson, an associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, to rehabilitate the community that was affected by the Tohoku tsunami in 2011. 

“Looking into the future, I think our interest is to build more collaborative research,” Jang said. “Chubu has become, now, a really good science university … and Ohio University is not the only partner.”

Susan Calhoun, landscape coordinator, said there are a number of environmental factors that affect the trees in Ohio. Calhoun said because of their placement near the Hocking River, they are often hit by a western wind that can be especially harsh in the winter. In 2014, she said, a polar vortex system prevented the trees from blooming that year.

“Another part of that environmental situation — right there along the levy, the riverbank — is that was artificial,” Calhoun said. “That’s not what the Hocking River was initially. So ... the Corps of Engineers, to protect OU from being flooded and Athens being flooded possibly annually … they made that big river bed so that it can widen out.”

Calhoun said as a result of this soil being moved to widen the river, it became very compacted — which has the potential to affect the longevity of the trees. However, she said they have also taken many steps to ensure the trees are healthy and cared for. They now have a procedure for treating cherry leaf spot, a fungal infection that leads to discolored spots on the leaves of the trees.

“We’ve got a procedure down now where we treat and try to fight that cherry tree fungus because it knocks the canopy down way too early, and the tree can’t make food,” Calhoun said.

Calhoun said they also care for the trees by pruning them, replanting them and watering them as needed.

Pedestrians and casual watchers enjoy the cherry blossom trees in full bloom during sunset on Tuesday, March 30, 2021.

Alberta Dempsey, the president of the Plant Club who uses they/them pronouns, said the trees also experience sunscald because of their location on campus.

“Basically, in the summer, the trees get really cold, right before daybreak at the coldest part of the day,” Dempsey, a senior studying plant biology, said. “As soon as the sun hits them in the morning, it heats one side of the tree, and the other side of it is still cold, which causes bark damage to it.”

Despite some of the environmental obstacles, the trees are well-cared for to maintain their longevity for generations of students and community members to enjoy them.

“I wouldn’t say they’re in imminent danger of ceasing to exist because we do have groundspeople, and we do maintain them to the extent that we can,” Dempsey said. 

Dempsey said they feel like the cherry trees are a great representation of OU’s values and identity as a university.

“There was effort and design and thought put into making sure that we would have nice places to lounge and spend free time and enjoy these trees,” Dempsey said. “This campus is covered in pretty trees, in my opinion.”

While the cherry blossoms are a recognizable part of OU’s campus, Dempsey wants people to recognize the beauty in Athens’ native plants as well. For example, the pawpaw tree is a plant native to the area and also — Dempsey believes — a symbol of Athens.

“Not everybody likes them, but they are kind of a mixture of mangoes and banana,” Dempsey said. “So I think that the pawpaws are very culturally relevant … (The Pawpaw Fest) is sharing information about gardening, local environmental issues, but it’s also live music, arts, food vendors (and) local artists. It’s a very nice fall celebration.”

Spectators watch as Karen Richards (left), Pat McGee (center) and Lara Wallace perform an orchestrated show while the cherry blossom trees are in full bloom. The blossoming of the trees along the Hocking River is the signifying start of spring, with Richards exclaiming "ode to the cherry blossoms!"

With the weather warming up and an increase in COVID-19 vaccinations throughout the state, many are looking forward to being outside.

“I think, more than anything else, this is a time where we get to see people,” Jang said. “Probably, during COVID-19, it will be more meaningful because we’ve been all in isolation … This is a time where we see families out there and the students and community members all enjoying the same beauty in their own way.”