Usually, it takes about 10 years for a cherry tree to bloom after it's sprouted. Not so with Japan's "space cherry": The tree bloomed after just four, and experts can't explain why, the South China Morning Post reports. It earned its galactic nickname after quite the journey. It was one of 265 cherry pits from a Japanese tree thought to be 1,250 years old that was sent to the International Space Station six years ago on an 8-month voyage. They returned in July 2009 with astronaut Koichi Wakata (who last month became the ISS' first Japanese commander).
The Asahi Shimbun reports the now 13-foot-tall tree bore 10 buds that all blossomed by April 4; other pits that made the journey have also bloomed ahead of schedule. For now, there are no answers, only theories: One researcher says "space rays" could have had some kind of effect. A botanist with the project posits that "agents in the seeds that control budding" could have been altered by the space environment, and notes the growth could point to an agricultural future in which crops are grown more quickly—in space. And the tree gets even more peculiar: While the parent tree features roughly 30-petal flowers, the "space cherry" has flowers of five petals each. "The young plant might have reverted back to have the characteristics of original yamazakura species," says Takao Yoshimura, who sprouted the pit. (Another tree making news: one tied to Anne Frank.)