On March 26, 1912, probably the most famous ‘monument’ in the Washington DC area arrived from Japan: 3,020 cherry trees.
Year after year, these trees bloom in a beautiful display that gives us a sure-fire sign that spring is upon us. It’s also the time of the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival and probably brings the biggest influx of tourists for the year.
And, by far, the blooms give the city a photogenic quality that never gets old.
The history of the trees in DC is an interesting one. Originally begun as an idea by Mrs. Eliza Scidmore, who proposed that cherry trees be planted along the Potomac – a request that she repeated for twenty-four years.
Meantimes, Dr. David Fairchild had imported some cherry trees in 1906 to test their hardiness and had planted them on his property in Chevy Chase. Their success prompted the Fairchilds to eventually order 300 trees for planting in the Chevy Chase area. They also gave saplings to children in the DC school system to plant for Arbor Day.
It was because of Dr. Fairchild’s actions that prompted Mrs. Scidmore to raise money in 1909 to purchase the trees in order to donate them. She sent a letter to Mrs. Taft, the new First Lady, and received a positive response two days later. The original plan was to plant them along the ‘Speedway,’ an avenue that no longer exists but was located around the Tidal Basin.
Upon hearing of the plan, Dr. Jokichi Takamine, a Japanese chemist, and Mr. Midzuno, the Japanese consul, donated an additional 2,000 trees in the name of the City of Tokyo. The trees were to be planted along the Potomac.
In January of 1910, the trees arrived – but upon inspection, it was discovered that the entire shipment was infested with insects and disease. President Taft gave his consent to burn the trees to prevent contamination. All 2,000 were destroyed.
Despite the setback, Dr. Takamine and the Mayor of Tokyo, Yukio Ozaki, donated another 3,020 trees. These were specially grown from grafts of the famous collection along the Arakawa River.
On Valentine’s Day in 1912, all 3,020 trees arrived in Washington. The majority of the trees were of the “Somei-Yoshino” variety; only twenty “Gyo-i-ko” trees were donated and all of these were planted on the grounds of the White House.
On March 27, First Lady Helen Taft and the Viscountess Chinda (wife of the Japanese ambassador) planted the first two Yoshino trees at the Tidal Basin. These two trees still stand, by the way, and are located at the end of 17th St. SW, a few hundred yards west of the John Paul Jones Memorial.
It was this ceremony – witnessed by only a few people – that spawned the idea of the NCBF, which began in 1935.
Today, the oldest trees line the Tidal Basin and much of Potomac Park. This is the most-visited area of the blooms, though there are many other spots around the city, including the National Mall and the Capitol Building. For those looking for a more idyllic setting, the Kenwood neighborhood over in Bethesda has over 1,200 cherry trees lining the streets.
Today, the cherry trees are one of the most beautiful monuments in the city, an organic work of art that brings smiles to even the most dour of visitors. My wife and I make it a point to go every year and we’ve never been disappointed, despite the crush of people. The beauty of the blooms seems to bring a sense of peace over everyone; I daresay it’s one of the few times I’m in town in the thick of tourists where everyone is calm, relaxed and pleasant to be around.
So whether your a visitor or a long-time resident, make it a point to go and enjoy them, before they blow away in a shower of pink and white petals. You’ll never regret it.
Peak bloom period (when 70% of the trees are in bloom) is estimated to run through April 4 though the trees will be blooming through mid- to late-April. Don’t miss out!