AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
There is a very old cherry tree in Japan. It's said to be about 1,250 years old. And in 2008, a few hundred of this tree's seeds took a ride up to the International Space Station.
MARSHALL PORTERFIELD: And they flew these seeds for eight months on space and then they brought these seeds home and planted them in 14 different locations across Japan.
CORNISH: That's Marshall Porterfield. He is the division director for space life and physical sciences at NASA. He spent years investigating the effects of plants growing in space. But something happened to these pits that even he can't explain.
PORTERFIELD: A few of these trees that were flown in space, they bloomed six years ahead of time.
CORNISH: Normally, it takes 10 years for cherry trees to start producing any buds. But several of the trees from the seeds that went into space have blossomed after only four. And Marshall Porterfield says that's a surprise.
PORTERFIELD: Now, the U.S. has conducted seeds in space programs in the past on the shuttle and they also had tomato seeds in space for several years on a satellite that was deployed from the shuttle called the Long Duration Exposure Facility. Those experiments did not present results that were as dramatic as what the Japanese are reporting now with the cherry trees.
CORNISH: The space cherry tree wasn't part of a formal experiment so no one knows why this happened but Porterfield has his own theories.
PORTERFIELD: It could be that this trip associated with the time that the plants were in space and the amount of time that the seeds were stored could have led to this kind of response.
CORNISH: Porterfield says future experiments on plant growth in space are in the works. We can only hope that they can shed light on the mystery of these early blooming space cherry trees. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.