A tiny bloom in winter is a big deal

ILLUSTRATION: ISTOCK, CHNG CHOON HIONG

It's the little that can matter a lot, as I gleaned from my trip to Switzerland last month.

As I rode in a taxi from the airport to my hotel in Zurich, I happened to notice a flower blooming on certain trees despite the wintry conditions.

But that skipped my mind as I could see something was terribly wrong in this country where everything usually works like clockwork: There was no electricity, so even the traffic lights were not working. But there was no blaring of horns, no chaos at junctions. And I arrived safely at the hotel with no other excitement.

This and the next day were rainy and dreary, but that bothered me not. I was jet-lagged anyway and slept and woke up at unusual hours. When awake, I paced my room swinging the 1kg dumbbells I travel with countless times - covering probably 8km to 9km each day.

On the third day, the sun was out by 1pm and I decided to go for a walk on my own.

I went up several streets, most of which were quite steep; and what I walked up, I had to later walk down. It was going down that stressed the muscles on the anterior aspect of my thighs and my knee joint. The temperature was about 10 deg C, which I found comfortable in my shorts and T-shirt.

Of the qualities that make a truly successful man, first is moral uprightness. But without resilience, however passionately one wants to do what is right, one is unlikely to achieve it. And that resilience must flower when the spirit of others has wilted.

I was scrutinising the plants in the gardens around the houses. Most of the leaves were gone and the few flowers that had not dropped off had wilted.

In spite of the quaint houses, similar to what one sees in typical pictures accompanying Grimm's fairy tales, the scene looked bleak.

Then I noticed some of the trees had small clumps of pink or white flowers. These were similar to those I had spotted on the drive from the airport.

I asked two passers-by what flowers those were. One indicated he didn't know and the other shrugged his shoulders and said: "December!" At least he was on the same wavelength as I was. One does not expect flowers to bloom at this time of year. Picking up a tiny clump of the flowers from a branch hanging just beyond a garden wall, I returned to the hotel and asked the concierge to identify it. He shrugged in response.

I then asked a receptionist, a young Pakistani woman, if she knew what it was. It was a small flower with five petals, each of which was white with pink spots and stamens in the centre that were also pink. I was delighted when she offered to help by Googling "winter cherry blossom" in German.

We gazed at the screen and the tiny flowers in my hand, two non-Caucasian women sharing a common interest in a bloom that Zurich natives take for granted.

I thought it looked like a Japanese cherry blossom except not in the abundance that one sees in the sakura season in springtime Tokyo.

I took the tiny cluster of flowers up to my room and Googled it using my tablet. That led to an enjoyable afternoon contemplating winter cherry blossoms and the more usual spring cherry blossoms, which bring hordes of Japanese and tourists out into the parks to picnic under pink canopies, with pink petals floating down around them.

A cherry blossom comes from several trees of the genus Prunus. These are found in Europe, West Siberia, India, China, Korea, Japan, Canada and the United States. But in some places, more than others, the flowers represent a lot.

Cherry blossoms are a symbol of spring, a time of renewal, the fleeting nature of life, mortality. Their life is very short. After their beauty peaks around two weeks, the flowers die and their petals flutter down like snowflakes. They also represent clouds in Japan because of their abundant presence.

Jarringly, from these ideas arose sinister associations.

Cherry Blossom Society was the name picked for a secret society of young officers within the Imperial Japanese Army in 1930. Their mission was to turn the state into a dictatorship. The flower was used in propaganda of that time to extol warriors to be "ready like the myriad cherry blossoms to scatter". Thus was the beauty of the cherry blossom appropriated to stoke nationalism.

In World War II, kamikaze pilots emblazoned their planes with the blossom before taking off, and named a sub-unit Yamazakura or wild cherry blossom . "Falling cherry petals came to represent the sacrifice of youth in suicide missions to honour the emperor," as one Kiwi blogger noted.

The propaganda got headier with talk of even reincarnation in the form of blossoms.

I was pleased that the winter cherry blossoms are from trees that do not yield the overwhelming clouds of pink sakura in spring, because the concept of the sakura has been contaminated by its above associations.

The Chinese consider the plum blossom, which is also a genus Prunus, as a symbol of strength and resilience because it flowers when the winter is at its coldest.

And this is what the winter cherry blossom represents to me.

It has a much more understated appearance compared to the thick and broad canopy of spring time sakuras. Flowers occur in small clusters, which make them stand out like gems from the otherwise bare cherry trees, and they occur when the weather is most hostile to plant life. Instead of the transience of life, I think the more appropriate analogy is the resilience of this exceptional species of cherry trees that can bloom when all other flowers have wilted or died.

Of the qualities that make a truly successful man, first is moral uprightness. But without resilience, however passionately one wants to do what is right, one is unlikely to achieve it.

And that resilience must flower when the spirit of others has wilted.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 10, 2016, with the headline 'A tiny bloom in winter is a big deal'. Print Edition | Subscribe