How the cherry blossom became a Washington hallmark

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 15, 2012 

WASHINGTON — On March 27, 1912, Helen Taft, the wife of President William Howard Taft, and Viscountess Iwa Chinda, who was married to the Japanese ambassador to the United States, planted two cherry blossom trees in West Potomac Park, a green space on the banks of the Potomac River not far from the National Mall.

The next month, more trees were planted along the Tidal Basin and into Rock Creek Park, the vast urban park that stretches through the capital. Eighteen cherry trees were soon planted on the White House grounds.

This year, Washington will mark the 100th anniversary of those trees, some of which still exist, though most of the originals have died and been replaced. Their blossoming is celebrated annually with the National Cherry Blossom Festival, which is timed for late March, when the blooms are at their peak. This year the festival runs from March 20 to April 27. The peak, when 70 percent of the trees are covered in blossoms, is forecast for March 20-23.

But while the capital celebrates the centennial of the cherry blossom trees (they do not bear fruit), in fact the push to bring the delicate blossoms to Washington began much earlier.

A journalist and a government bureaucrat deserve the credit for what has become one of the signature aspects of the U.S. capital.

The journalist, Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, was the first to sing the praises of the blossom of the sakura trees that she'd found in Tokyo. In 1885, she suggested to the U.S. Army superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds that the trees be brought to the U.S. capital and planted. She repeated that suggestion to successive superintendents for years, without success.

The bureaucrat was David Fairchild, who would become a world renown botanist for his work in the Department of Agriculture's Section of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction, which dispatched "plant explorers" around the world to find new species to add diversity to the American landscape.

An avid botanist from his youth in Michigan and Kansas, Fairchild joined the section in 1889. In a career that lasted until 1933, he introduced more than 75,000 plants to the United States, including various species of oranges, mangos, dates, cotton and bamboo.

On a trip in 1902, he landed in Japan. Like Scidmore, he was smitten by the cherry blossom trees of Tokyo, with their small pink blossoms.

As a member of the Office of Plant Inspection, he had more luck raising the blossoms' profile.

In 1905, he ordered 75 flowering cherry trees for his home "In The Woods" in Chevy Chase, Md., just outside the District of Columbia boundary. He was testing if they would live in the different climate.

They flourished. The "drooping" weeping cherry trees were particularly hardy.

In 1907 he ordered 450 more trees and gave 150 to District of Columbia schoolboys to plant on Arbor Day in 1908. The remainder were planted around his Chevy Chase neighborhood.

According to a Department of Agriculture booklet from 1977, the Arbor Day event sparked interest in planting cherry trees in the area near the Tidal Basin and West Potomac Park, where some of Washington's best known memorials, including those to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr., would rise.

It was Scidmore, however, who wrote to first lady Helen Taft, who'd also visited Japan, and sparked interest in planting the trees.

In November 1909, a gift of 2,000 cherry trees arrived from Japan, and diplomatic disaster struck. The trees had scale, root galls and wood-boring insects. After a thorough examination, they were burned, along with their packing material of bamboo.

Tokyo's mayor offered to replace them. He made sure, through rigorous inspections, that the new trees were pest free. Two years later, in late January 1912, 6,000 bamboo-wrapped cherry blossom trees sailed aboard a steamer to Seattle — 3,020 to Washington, the rest to New York.

That led to the March 27 planting.

In 1915, the U.S. reciprocated, sending Japan a shipment of pink dogwood trees and seeds. They flourished in Japan.

Fairchild continued to introduce new plants. The Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden outside Miami is named for him. He was part of the National Geographic Society and in 1938 was presented with the Meyer Medal for "distinguished services in plant introduction."

Scidmore, also a member of the National Geographic Society, traveled extensively all her life. After she died, her ashes were buried in Japan at the request of its government for her extensive coverage of Asia. She is remembered for her National Geographic coverage of the 1896 tidal wave that followed a massive earthquake. It was the first use of the word "tsunami."

ON THE WEB

National Park Service on Washington, D.C. Cherry Trees

Pink Dogwoods blossom in Tokyo

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens

Eliza Scidmore from National Geographic

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