The Cherry Blossom Festival — A gift of beauty and a story of friendship

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The Jefferson Memorial is the perfect place to experience peak bloom.

About ten days ago, our friend and NYSD contributor Paige Peterson was in Washington for a meeting at what was the height of the cherry trees blooming all over Washington. The Cherry Blossom Festival, as it is known, is popular all over the world. In her effort to get a hotel room, she soon learned that there were NO rooms available at all of the topline hotels and finally found a single room available in an area far from the center of the thousands of cherry trees in bloom.

She arrived in DC on the day of peak bloom, hiring a taxi to take her around to the various areas. As he drove her from one section to another, stopping only briefly, she’d hop out and photograph the trees before moving on to the next area guided by the cab driver who, as a Washingtonian, knew them all.

Paige among the cherry blossoms …

A little history. The planting of cherry trees in Washington originated in 1912 as a gift of friendship to the People of the United States from the People of Japan.

The tradition of celebrating the spring blooming of cherry trees in Japan is centuries old. In Japan, the flowering cherry tre is an important flowering plant. Their beauty is a symbol with rich meaning in Japanese culture. 

Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, Courtesy Washingtoniana Division, D.C. Public Library

Here in the United States, in 1884, Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, a world traveler, writer, and diplomat, upon returning to Washington from her first visit to Japan, approached the U.S. Army Superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds with a proposal that Japanese cherry trees be planted one day along the reclaimed Potomac waterfront. Her request fell on deaf ears.

Over the next two decades, Mrs. Scidmore continued with the idea to every new superintendent to propose the idea with no success. But then, in 1906 Dr. David Fairchild, plant explorer and U. S Department of Agriculture official, personally imported 75 flowering cherry trees and 25 single-flowered weeping types from the Yokohama Nursery Company in Japan, and planted them on his own property in Chevy Chase, Maryland to see if they could thrive in the environment Washington. The trees grew and blossomed.

A year later, Dr. Fairchild gave cherry saplings to children from each District of Columbia school to plant in their schoolyard for the observance of Arbor Day. 

The year after, Mrs. Scidmore decided to raise the money to purchase the cherry trees and donate them to the city. She sent a note outlining her plan to the new First Lady, Helen Herron Taft, wife of President William Howard Taft. Mrs. Taft who had lived in Japan was familiar with the beauty of the flowering cherry trees and liked a good idea.

The President and new First Lady, Helen Herron Taft.

Coincidentally, the following day, Japanese chemist Dr. Jokichi Takamine was in Washington with the Japanese consul in New York. When told of the project, he proposed a donation of an additional 2,000 trees to fill out the area and suggested they trees be given in the name of the City of Tokyo. Tokyo’s Mayor, Yukio Ozaki, supported the gift and the First Lady, Mrs. Taft agreed to accept the donation.

Five days after Mrs. Taft’s request, the Superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, Colonel Spencer Cosby, U.S. Army, initiated the purchase of 90 Fugenzo Cherry Trees.

Arrival of Cherry Trees to DC. Courtesy of U.S. National Arboretum

The trees were planted along the Potomac from the site of the Lincoln Memorial southward toward East Potomac Park. That August, the Japanese Embassy informed the Department of State that the City of Tokyo intended to donate to the United States 2,000 cherry trees to be planted along the Potomac River.

In January 1910, 2,000 trees arrived in Washington. Soon after, an inspection team from the Department of Agriculture discovered that the trees were infested with insects and nematodes and diseased. President Taft consented to burn the trees.

The Secretary of State sent letters to the Japanese Ambassador expressing the deep regret. Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki suggested a second donation be made. The following February 3,020 cherry trees from twelve varieties were shipped from Yokohama on board the S.S. Awa Maru, bound for Seattle where they were transferred to insulated freight cars for the shipment to Washington. D.C.

Japanese Ambassador and Viscountess Chinda. Courtesy U.S. National Arboretum

That March, Mrs. Taft and the Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese Ambassador, planted two Yoshino cherry trees on the northern bank of the Tidal Basin, about 125 feet south of what is now Independence Avenue, SW.  The National Cherry Blossom Festival grew from this simple ceremony, witnessed by just a few people, and these two original trees a century later still stand a few hundred yards west of the John Paul Jones Memorial. 

In 1915, a gesture of gratitude Former President Taft sent a gift of flowering dogwood trees to the people of Japan. 19 years later in 1935, the DC Commissioners sponsored a three-day celebration — the first “Cherry Blossom Festival.”

By 1937 the ceremony was attracting thousands of visitors to the Capital. In 1940, The Cherry Blossom pageant was introduced to the festival activities. After World War II, Cherry Blossom Princesses were selected from each State of the Union as well as from each federal territory. From these princesses, a queen was chosen to reign during the festival

In 1965, he Japanese Government made another generous gift of 3,800 Yoshino trees the beautification of Washington. The cycle of giving and preservation was ongoing.

“Crowned Queen of Cherry Blossoms,” Library of Congress 2016871505, Harris and Ewing

In the late 1980, 608 new cherry trees were planted at a cost of over $101,000 in private funds donated to the National Park Service to restore the number of trees to what they were at the time of the original gift.

November 15, 1999, 50 trees, propagated from the 1,400+ year old “Usuzumi” cherry tree growing in the village of Itasho Neo in Gifu Prefecture of Japan, were planted in West Potomac Park. It is said that the 26th Emperor Keitai of Japan planted that tree 1,500 years ago to celebrate his ascension to the throne. The “Usuzumi” tree was declared a National Treasure of Japan in 1922.

By 2011 approximately 120 propagates from the surviving 1912 trees were collected by National Park Service horticulturists and sent back to Japan to the Japan Cherry Blossom Association to retain the genetic lineage. Through this cycle of giving, the cherry trees continue to fulfill their role as a symbol and as an agent of friendship.

2016: Cuttings were taken from the trees throughout the Tidal Basin and West Potomac Park. These trees are being propagated at a nursery and will be planted once the trees are large enough to be transplanted. Beauty reigns supreme. The Real Supreme.

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