This week marks the peak blossoming point of the 3,000 cherry trees that line the Tidal Basin in our nation’s capital.
A young woman smells the blooms of one of the cherry trees surrounding the Tidal Basin near the National Mall in Washington, D.C. March 23, 2016. Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images
Every spring, Washington D.C. experiences an influx of tourists by the hundreds of thousands. It’s not for voter rallies, or important summits like you might normally expect at the capital of the United States: it’s to witness the blooming of the city’s cherry blossoms. Diana Mayhew, president of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, said that roughly 1 million people attend every year just for a glimpse at those fluffy white and pink petals.
If you’ve never been to D.C. this time of year, it’s well worth the venture, and something to add to your travel bucket list. The trees typically bloom brightest in the city’s Tidal Basin near the Jefferson Memorial in late March or early April. This year, the flowers are expected to “peak” on Thursday, March 31. Crowds will flock there this week for strolls, picnics, photo-ops (it’s a particularly popular place for newly engaged couples to pose for Save the Dates and more), or just to stop and smell the flowers.
One might never guess these dainty little flowers have such a rough and storied past, one that speaks not only to the tenacity of tricky friendship between nations but the tenacity of American women.
Though many know that the trees were a gift from Japan to the United States, most are unaware that the gift wasn’t Japan’s idea—initially. In 1885, Mrs. Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore returned from a trip to Japan with an idea for planting the cherry trees she’d seen on her travels. She thought they’d be a beautiful addition to the newly reclaimed shores of the Potomac. She tried to sell her idea to the powers that be for 20 years. All to no avail.
In 1906, Dr. David Fairchild, plant explorer and U.S. Department of Agriculture official planted imported Japanese cherry trees at his home in Chevy Chase, Maryland, to see how well the trees would do in D.C. soil. Happy with the results, Dr. Fairchild agreed with Mrs. Scidmore’s plan, and began to promote the idea of cherry-tree lined streets in Washington, D.C. He even gave saplings out to children for planting on Arbor Day.
Mrs. Scidmore finally saw her opportunity. She wrote to then First Lady Taft with a fundraising idea for the trees. The Japanese Consul in New York got wind of their correspondence and offered to donate the trees in the name of the City of Tokyo.
In early January 1910, 2,000 cherry trees arrived in Washington, D.C. Weeks later these trees were found to be riddled with insects. By the end of the month, President Taft ordered the trees burned to protect American growers.
Though this caused embarrassment and diplomatic complications, two years later, more than 3,000 new trees arrived in Washington.
“Helen Herron Taft and the Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese Ambassador, planted two Yoshino cherry trees on the northern bank of the Tidal Basin,” says the National Park Service. “At the conclusion of the ceremony, the first lady presented a bouquet of American Beauty roses to Viscountess Chinda. Washington’s renowned National Cherry Blossom Festival grew from this simple ceremony, witnessed by just a few persons.”
Workers would continue planting trees for the next seven years.
But it wasn’t all blooms and roses from there on out. When Franklin Roosevelt proposed clearing the northern bank to make room for the Jefferson Memorial, a group of “indignant women” chained themselves near the trees. Their indignation worked. A compromise was reached in which more trees would be planted on the south side of the Tidal Basin to “frame” the memorial.
In 1965, the Japanese government gave another 3,800 trees to Lady Bird Johnson for the “beautification” of Washington. This gesture—along with a pagoda and crown used in the Cherry Blossom pageant—were signs of a renewed friendship between the United States and Japan, one that had been “tested,” of course, during World War II.
In the 1980s, horticulturists began taking clippings from the original trees for study and posterity. Today, the trees have been propagated from the original 1912 trees. They stand both in Washington, DC, and in Japan.
Surely, that’s part of our love for these trees. While we have monuments and statues, historic buildings and homes, these cherry trees that bloom year after year, remind us of the beauty of history, of friendship, and of perseverance.
Can’t make it this year? Just catching a picture of those trees, with their delicate pinky-white blossoms stretching across the lawn and arching over the basin waters is a soothing reminder that spring is coming.
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