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Hiroshima Peace Tree comes to Blekerspark

On 23 September, the Leiden alderman for the Management of Public Space was presented with a Ginkgo Biloba in the Blekerspark. This special 'Peace Tree' was grown from a seed from a tree that survived the atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima. The Peace Tree is being temporarily housed in Leiden's Hortus Botanicus before being planted later in the year in the Blekerspark.

Peace trees are being planted worldwide as a symbol of hope and vitality, and as a protest against the spread of nuclear weapons. How did the Leiden Hortus Botanicus become involved? This is the story. 

Alderman Ashley North, Public Space Management, and Kris Schiermeier, Director of Sieboldhuis, with the peace tree on the Japanese-inspired platform in the Blekerspark.

Some five years ago, Shuhei Nishiyama, from Japan, was studying at Campus The Hague. He was taught by Professor of International Public Law Larissa van den Herik. Shuhei played an active role in Japan in Green Legacy Hiroshima, founded in 2011 and affiliated with the United Nations. Green Legacy Hiroshima is an organisation that plants trees in all parts of the world grown from seeds of different types of trees that survived the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima; amazingly, over the space of time, these trees began to grow again in the devastated soil of the city.   

Hortus botanicus

Van den Herik knows more about law than seeds, and so referred Shuhei to Leiden biologist Rinny Kooi, who, although retired, is still a guest member of staff at the Leiden Institute of Biology. Kooi was introduced to Shuhei and to Green Legacy Hiroshima, and she in turn got in touch with the Hortus botanicus. The Hortus was keen to take up the challenge of nurturing Japanese seeds and finding suitable locations for them in the Netherlands. 

Fifty seeds of four different kinds of trees were brought to Leiden and entrusted to the care of Rogier van Vugt, head of the greenhouses in the Hortus. The trees brought to Leiden are:
•    Cinnamomum camphora (camphor tree)
•    Ginkgo biloba (Japanese nut tree) 
•    Celtis sinensis var. japonica  (nettle tree)  
•    Diospyros kaki (persimmon)

Peace Palace

The cultivation of the seeds went well. The camphor tree may not be hardy enough to withstand the winter, but the rapid increase in temperature in the Netherlands is in this case beneficial. The next step was to find suitable locations for a Peace Tree. The first place to be nominated was the Peace Palace in The Hague, put forward by the Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom. ‘An ideal location,' in Kooi's words, and the Peace Palace itself was in complete agreement. In 2017, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which made this an ideal year to plant a tree - the persimmon - in the grounds of the Peace Palace.

Peace Tree
On 6 August 2020, exactly 75 years after the end of WWII, Rinny Kooi presented a persimmon tree to a representative of the Peace Palace in The Hague


But, sadly, although all the seeds of the persimmon tree did germinate, the trees died due to some unidentified cause, including those at the Peace Palace. ‘But we promised trees, and trees there will be,' says Kooi. So, new seeds were ordered and a tree cultivated by Van Vugt was again presented to the Peace Palace, on 6 August, the day on which WWII came to an end 75 years ago. 

Von Siebold

The Blekerspark, part of Leiden's Singelpark, was chosen as a suitable location for the Ginko because the park is already home to a number of different Japanese trees and plants: garden and landscape architect Boto van der Meulen drew his inspiration for the recent reorganisation of the area from Philipp Franz Von Siebold and took Japan as his theme. German physician and collector of Japanese artefacts Von Siebold settled in Leiden in 1829 after a stay of six years on the Japanese trading island of Deshima. He cultivated plants he had brought with him from Japan, including hortensia, hosta, various azaleas and wisteria. From the Hortus Botanicus, the plants were spread throughout Europe and are now part of the established plant population.  

French tree in Leiden

It may sound odd, but the tree that was planted in the Blekerspark was cultivated in France. This is because the Leiden Hortus did not have a Ginko that was large enough to be transplanted, and it is common practice for seeds and trees to be exchanged within Europe. Green Legacy Hiroshima has also been welcomed in other countries. Until November, the best time for planting trees, this French migrant will remain in the Hortus under the tender care of Van Vugt, literally in the shadow of the enormous Ginko that has been in the Hortus botanicus for many years for visitors to admire.  

Peace Tree
The Swiss nuns with the 'Leiden' Peace Tree.

‘Leiden’ tree goes to Switzerland

Just as a Peace Tree cultivated in France can end up in Leiden, a nettle tree grown in Leiden can also find its way to Switzerland, to the monastery of Grandchamp, a community of Protestant nuns in Areuse. Leiden friends of one of the nuns presented them with the tree on 20 March, in a memorial service to mark the 75th anniversary of liberation. 

Other locations

Ideas for special, suitable locations for the saplings cultivated in Leiden are welcome. Kooi herself has several more suggestions, but first welcomes ideas from other people. Fortunately, trees are patient! 

This autumn sees the start of an exhibition in Japan Museum Sieboldhuis on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Text: Corine Hendriks
Photos of the presentation of the Gingko: Buro JP
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Peace Tree
Paul Kessler, Director of the Leiden Hortus Botanicus (right), Rinny Kooi and Head of Greenhouses Rogier van Vugt.
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