Over the past few days, excitement was palpable in the air in Shillong on the much-anticipated Cherry Blossom Festival. Posters and banners were put up across the town announcing its arrival and different venues were being prepared for the four-day festival beginning November 8. This was the second year and the organisers had another prefix – ‘International’ – to the festival name making it the India International Cherry Blossom Festival.All arrangements were in place: scores of stalls centred around the theme of cherry blossoms at the inauguration venue, dancers from the three major tribes of Meghalaya, Garo, Khasi and Jaintia ready to take the stage. As many as 15 different cultural events were planned. Among several events on the opening day, a story telling session was organised at the picturesque Ward’s Lake in the evening. The lake, in the heart of town, had another cluster of about 100 cherry trees, gently lit up, and hundreds of people gathered at the venue. At the inauguration at Polo Grounds, Meghalaya’s Forest and Environment Minister Clement Marak declared the Cherry Blossom festival a celebration of nature.Only, nature wasn’t co-operating. The cherry trees were not ready to come out in full bloom. Not one of the cherry trees in the cluster at Polo Grounds had blossomed.Since 2014, when experts began taking an interest in the tree, the blossoming had occurred in the first week of November. Dinabandhu Sahoo, director of the Institute of Bioresources and Sustainable Development (IBSD), a Central government institute that has been working to organise the festival, said, “The rainfall pattern has been erratic this year. It rained till the last week of October. For cherry trees to blossom, a chill factor is required. There is a huge difference in the day and night temperature and it is delaying the blossoming.”No edible fruitIn countries like Japan, cherry blossoms appear in spring. The Japanese cherry blossom tree is Prunus yedoensis commonly known as Somei Yoshima. Cherry blossom in northeastern India, particularly around Shillong, is Prunus cerasoides. It is also known as Wild Himalayan Cherry and blossoms in autumn. The fruits are inedible but in perfect bloom the trees are full of pastel-hue pink and soft white blossoms.It was in Autumn of 2014 when Prof. Sahoo, during a visit to Shillong, saw cherry trees in full bloom. Even many locals are not aware that they were cherry trees.“Last year, when we had the festival in the second week of November, the blossoms had already started to fall. We decided to advance the festival this time. With no blossoms this year there are clear indications that climatic factors are affecting the life cycle of the species,” C.P. Marak, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, and Head of Forest Force, Meghalaya, told The Hindu. He said cherry trees had grown in the wild on their own. Though no enumeration has been done, the forest official put the number as low as 2000 trees in Shillong.Between May 2015 to June 2017 the State Forest department planted about 5,000 cherry trees in and around Shillong. “These include avenue plantations and along the highway passing through Shillong. In the next three to five years, these trees will be in full bloom,” Mr. Marak said.Cherry blossom spiritStudents from the Pearly Dew Higher Secondary School here tell the story about the Japanese legend of Sakura or cherry blossom tree. Natsume, a handsome boy met Sakura, a spirit who lived beside a beautiful tree that glowed by the moonlight and bloomed beautifully. They got married but soon Sakura’s time on earth came to an end. While leaving, she gave Natsume a seed, and promised to remain by his side forever. From then on, the tree was called Sakura or cherry blossom tree.At the festival, the wait for pink and soft white blossoms continued on the second day. Some residents say the trees could be in bloom in upper Shillong, near the Shillong peak. The blooms are first spotted in higher elevations and they enter town over the next few days.About eight kilometres from the town, in the 5th mile, a solitary branch of a majestic tree is in bloom and bees have already arrived. Albert Chiang, a scientist with IBSD came up with more good news. He had spotted a tree in bloom higher up in the 6th mile area. Inside the Horti Hub in 6th Mile area, beyond the pine trees, a lone cherry blossom tree was bathed in pink.Experts working on changing climate conditions in the north east underline the need for more and detailed scientific studies on plants particularly those having rich economic, cultural and aesthetic beauty. Partha Jyoti Das, head of Water Climate and Hazards Programme of Guwhati based think- tank Aranyak said some plants were more sensitive to climate change and he had come across reports of flowering of certain plants being delayed for almost a month due to climatic variations. Mr. Das said the changes in the post-monsoon period and winter rainfall had hit crops like paddy, potato, mustard and vegetables.The organisers have decided to keep the dates for the next year flexible and are also keen to take some technical help from Japan on predicting the blossoming phase.