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My friend showed me a news item about a monkey (or macaque) recently (early February) seen in Taiwan eating cherry blossoms. I assumed it must have been eating caterpillars or other insects that eat the blossoms, but a quick search in google found a related video shot in Japan Monkey Eating Cherry Blossoms in Slow Motion.

So a few days ago I tried a few. I pulled off the petals (since the monkey also seemed uninterested in them) and when I first started chewing I tasted nothing but inert vegetable matter.

But then over about 15 to 20 seconds of chewing the little blossom bodies I noticed it first became bitter, then slowly increasing taste of what I describe as "Black Cherry" flavor, but without any sweetness. It continued to get stronger and more delicious, and I did not want to stop!

That day I'd chewed (and eventually swallowed) about a dozen blossoms and felt absolutely wonderful; like I had been treated to a real delicacy.

note: The cherry trees planted and cultiated for their decorative blossoms in the early spring are not the same as the trees that yield commercial cherries. I'm told their fruit is quite sour.

Question: What makes cherry blossoms so delicious? Does this delicious molecule (or molecules) have some function in the blossom? Does saliva activate it?

It's possible that it's stored in structures that take time to break down during chewing, but I got the impression that a chemical reaction was taking place, perhaps a bit like how starch becomes sugar as we continue to chew on bread.


decorative cherry blossoms in Taipei in early February

decorative cherry blossoms in Taipei in early February

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There actually is a study in the Nature magazine identifying the volatile (in the sense that they easily evaporate, as most aromatic substances do) organic compounds in cherry flower essential oils (basically a liquid cherry flower "extract" in which these volatile organic compounds are enriched by a process similar to distillation) the researchers made from cherry flowers from four different cultivators.

In the study, you find a table. It contains a list of the volatile organic compounds found, including how much they found in the essential oil created from the cherry blossoms from each cultivator, respectively.

I copied (one copy-paste suffices) the table into a spreadsheet program (LibreOffice Calc), and then added a column with the average share (probably wrt. weight, see study for details) of the respective volatile organic compound found (averaged over the four oils the scientists made from the blossoms from the four different cultivators), and sorted the table by that column.

The compounds with the largest average share are:

compound average share [%] taste
Ethanol 15.8600 it's alcohol
(E)-2-Hexenal 11.4725 like green apples
Benzaldehyde 10.4025 like cherries
Dimethyl sulfide 5.7000 savory
Acetaldehyde 5.4625 tart flavor, like green apples or dry cider
Linalool 4.0625 flowery and citrus like flavor

Followed by compounds with shares of less than 2.8%.

Now the question remains which of these are most important for the cherry blossom taste you observed.

Regarding this, I would like to remark the following:

  • benzaldehyde and linalool probably play a major role, as you described the taste as black cherry like, and according to this article, benzaldehyde, linalool and eugenol are the most important constituents of the cherry taste (eugenol was not found in the essential oil, and methyleugenol only had a very small share, see the original table).
  • Ethanol probably only has little effect on the flavor, as it has not that strong of a flavor to begin with, and may even have appeared in the study in such large quantities just because the blossoms were not handled quickly enough and rotted a little, so that possibly, in fresh blossoms, one would find much less ethanol.
  • Dimethyl sulfide possibly only has little effect on the flavor of fresh blossoms, as it's savory taste doesn't fit the taste you described and the quantity found in the study may similarly actually mostly be the result of the blossoms rotting (as dimethyl sulfide indicates bacterial contamination when brewing).

Explaining the time delay:

Obviously, the compounds are at first contained in the cells of the blossoms (mostly in the vacuoles of the cells). It takes time for the chewing to destroy those cells and for the compounds to leave the destroyed cells and enter your saliva by diffusion, possibly explaining the short time delay.

Safety of eating blossoms:

As you see, those blossoms contain a variety of organic compounds, some of which are actually poisonous in still quite small amounts. I don't know in what amount, if any, those cherry blossoms you ate are safe to eat, maybe they are totally fine, maybe they are fine in small enough amounts, and maybe those specific cherry blossoms are downright poisonous. This may even depend on details, maybe some cherry blossoms are safe to eat and others aren't (considering that table for example, one of the cherry blossom essential oils tested had 0.54% coumarin, while another had none, and coumarin is poisonous). Please ask someone qualified whether the cherry blossoms you eat are safe.

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