Cherry Trees from Japan for Washington, D. C

If you have ever had the opportunity to view the magnificent Japanese cherry trees when they are in full bloom from March to April in Washington, D. C. it is a lovely sight to behold. There is a fascinating story behind how those cherry trees from Japan became part of the landscape for our nation’s capital a hundred years ago.

The story actually begins long before the ceremony on March 27, 1912 with the first planting of the trees along the Washington Tidal Basin. The original spearhead of having the trees in Washington was Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore in 1885. On a visit to Japan she had been so impressed with the Japanese cherry trees and the attractive burst of pink and white blossoms they produced, she felt they needed to be part of the Washington panorama. Eliza called them “the most beautiful thing in the world.” She was one to appreciate the beauty of these trees with her special interest in photography, geography and writings of the Far East.

Contacting the Superintendent for the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds with the idea, she had photos of the trees and described her concept of these trees all along Washington’s Tidal Basin. Eliza was turned down immediately, however this did not discourage her. With each new superintendent in charge of the Washington’s buildings and grounds over the proceeding years, she again presented her idea.

By 1906, Dr. David Fairchild, who worked for the U. S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D. C., imported 75 cherry trees from Japan and planted them on his own property in nearby Chevy Chase, Maryland. Those trees thrived and he began to promote their plantings across Chevy Chase and then the schoolyards in the District of Columbia.

With the inauguration of President William Howard Taft in March 1909 Eliza Scidmore felt she might have a new special approach to help bring about the planting of the cherry trees. She knew that the president’s wife, Helen Taft, had been to Japan earlier, viewed the cherry trees there and loved them also.

Eliza sent a handwritten letter to the new First Lady about her suggestion of the cherry trees for Washington. Helen Taft’s reply came quickly of her support for the idea. The news spread swiftly and the Japanese consul, Mr. Midzuno, suggested in the spirit of friendship that the City of Tokyo make a donation of 2,000 cherry trees to the City of Washington, D. C., which the First Lady happily accepted.

By December 1909, the 2,000 cherry trees had been sent from Japan on a ship and had arrived at the western coast of the United States. In January 1910 the trees were in Washington, D. C. As was common procedure, the trees were inspected by the Department of Agriculture. All the Japanese cherry trees turned out to be diseased with nematodes and insects and so unusable. They had to be burned which was done on January 28, 1910.

With sincere apologies new cherry trees were gathered by December of 1910 from along the Arakawa River near Tokyo and grafted with other stock as replacements. To have them in the best condition, it took over a year. By February 1912, some 3,020 trees were sent to Washington in special insulated carriers. The 3,020 trees were comprised of twelve different varieties. The trees passed their inspection and the ceremonial planting of the first tree was set for March 27th. It was First Lady Taft and the Viscountess Chinda, the wife of the Japanese Ambassador who planted the first two cherry trees along the northern end of the Tidal Basin. Later a special bronze plaque was placed at the base of the trees to mark the occasion. Of special interest, there were also 2,000 Japanese cherry trees planted in New York City’s Central Park and by Grant’s Tomb in July of 1912.

During 1912 and for several years following the cherry trees were planted by workers around the Tidal Basin. The Gyoiko variety was planted on the White House grounds. These flowering cherry trees are referred to as ‘Sakura’ in Japan.

Over the years the trees grew more beautiful and became quite an attraction. By 1935, several local civic groups began sponsoring a Cherry Blossom Festival. In 1940 the festival became the Cherry Blossom Pageant, always centered around the March dates when the trees blossomed.

With the turn of events of December 7, 1941, there were unknown individuals who actually cut down four of the cherry trees. Special protected was offered to secure the survival of the trees and even the change of the name from Japanese to Oriental cherry trees.

After World War II, Japan needed help to replenish their cherry trees, especially those from along the Arakawa River, the very location of the original Washington gifted trees. In 1952, the National Park Service sent descendant cuttings to Tokyo.

To renew the friendship between Japan and the United States, that was originally expressed with the gift of cherry trees planted in 1912, a Japanese pagoda, a stone lantern and a special crown for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival Queen have been given to Washington, D. C. In 1965 the government of Japan donated 3,800 cherry trees to be planted on the grounds of the Washington Monument and along the East Potomac Park.

Over the years many of the trees have had to be replaced. In the 1980s some 676 new trees were planted to replace those that had died. Those original surviving trees have had cuttings taken to keep the genetic lineage of those original trees for the future. The first two trees planted back in March 1912 still survive to this day, as does approximate 4% of the original trees.

With the 100th anniversary in 2012, the National Cherry Blossom Festival will run for five weeks, from March 20th to April 27th. There will be all types of anniversary activities, entertainment, tours, parades, cruises and information on the history of the cherry trees to Washington. There will also be issued by the United States Postal Service in 2012 a special ‘Cherry Blossom Centennial Forever Stamp’ marking the celebration.

Eliza Scidmore lived to see her vision become a reality. She died in 1928. Eliza would be so pleased that these beautiful trees have endured for one hundred years and appreciated by all Americans.

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