History In The Headlines

The Drama Behind 100 Years of Washington’s Cherry Blossoms

By Christopher Klein
Today marks the start of the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C., and this year’s extended five-week celebration commemorates the 100th anniversary of the planting of the first Japanese cherry trees along the Tidal Basin. The flowering trees may be living symbols of peace between the United States and Japan, but their history hasn’t always been free of strife. In fact, the Washington icons have survived a tumultuous century, enduring a bumpy beginning as well as threats from bulldozers, beavers and even ax-wielding ruffians.

Cherry Blossom Festival

(Credit: National Cherry Blossom Festival)

When globetrotter and travel writer Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore returned home to Washington, D.C., from a trip to Japan in 1885, she was smitten. Everything about the mysterious land in the Far East had enchanted the young woman, but the country’s flowering cherry trees had cast a particular spell on her. “The blooming cherry tree is the most ideally, wonderfully beautiful tree that nature has to show, and its short-lived glory makes the enjoyment the keener and more poignant,” she later wrote.

Scidmore believed cherry blossoms would be the perfect additions to the barren parkland that had just been reclaimed from the Potomac River’s mud flats. After presenting her idea to the U.S. Army superintendent in charge of the park, however, she was promptly turned down. For the next 24 years, the sting of rejection from a series of officials became a familiar feeling. “Amiable Army officers lent weary ear to the tale of the Japanese cherry blossom and the future fairyland, but none grew excited or was convinced,” she lamented in a 1910 magazine article.

In 1908 Scidmore attended an Arbor Day talk by David Fairchild and discovered a kindred spirit. A doctor and U.S. Department of Agriculture official, Fairchild had successfully transplanted 100 Japanese cherry trees on his Chevy Chase, Maryland, estate and envisioned a “field of cherries” around the Potomac River and the newly constructed Tidal Basin.

Eliza Scidmore

Eliza Scidmore, who spent 24 years advocating for the planting of Japanese cherry trees in Washington, D.C.

The pair joined forces, and by 1909 a fellow cherry blossom enthusiast was finally in a position of power. On April 5, Scidmore outlined a plan to purchase cherry trees for the capital in a letter to first lady Helen Herron Taft, whom she’d briefly met in Japan. It took just two days for the woman who had been strung along for 24 years to get a positive response. “I have taken the matter up and am promised the trees,” Mrs. Taft replied. And when famed Japanese chemist Jokichi Takamine, who discovered the existence of adrenaline, learned of the cherry tree concept, he offered an additional 2,000 trees as a symbol of international friendship. The first lady quickly accepted.

When the cherry trees arrived in Washington, D.C., on January 6, 1910, they were unfortunately bearing more than just goodwill. The Department of Agriculture discovered the trees were infested with insects and parasitic worms. On January 28, 1910, President William Taft regretfully gave his assent to destroy the trees, and most were incinerated in heaps resembling giant funeral pyres.

Undeterred, Takamine proposed an even larger donation. When the second shipment of 3,020 cherry trees, composed of a dozen varieties gifted by Tokyo, reached the capital in March 1912, they were in perfect condition. On March 27, 1912, in a simple ceremony with little fanfare and no photographers, the first lady and the Japanese ambassador’s wife dug their spades into the ground to begin planting the first two trees, which still stand today along the northwest wall of the Tidal Basin. Scidmore was also in attendance.

Planting continued for the rest of the decade, and the flowering trees quickly became such a beloved Washington institution that the selection of the Tidal Basin as the location for the new Jefferson Memorial led to howls of public protests from those fearing the mass removal of the trees. Flamboyant newspaper editor Eleanor “Cissy” Patterson, who took daily walks with her poodles under the canopy of the cherry trees, led the grassroots opposition, pledging in the Washington Herald to “defy workmen to so much as break a twig.”

On November 18, 1938, a band of 150 society ladies in furs descended upon the Jefferson Memorial’s construction site. To the astonishment of Civilian Conservation Corps engineers and gardeners, some of the women chained themselves to cherry trees, while others grabbed shovels out of the workers’ hands and began to replace the dirt that had been removed from around the trees. “This is the worst desecration of beauty in the capital since the burning of the White House by the British,” stated one protestor chained to a tree.

A few blocks away at the White House, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was drawn to the ruckus later dubbed the “Cherry Tree Rebellion.” The president declared that the trees were going be transplanted, not cut down, and that reports of proposed tree destructions were “one of the most interesting cases of newspaper flimflam” he had ever encountered. Roosevelt joked that if the protestors didn’t leave, “the cherry trees, the women and their chains would be gently but firmly transplanted in some other part of Potomac Park.” That night, once the protestors left, cherry trees were uprooted under the cover of darkness to avoid further disturbances.

Just three years later, however, Americans weren’t quite as enamored of the cherry trees. On the night of December 10, 1941, three days after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, four trees were chopped down during a temporary blackout in what was suspected to be a misguided act of retaliation by an unknown offender. For the duration of World War II, the gifts from Japan would be referred to as “Oriental” (not “Japanese”) cherry trees.

In 1999, more than half a century later, the cherry trees were again attacked, but this time the culprits were identified. Gnawing beavers had felled four trees with their mighty incisors and damaged several others. The animals were relocated from the Tidal Basin, and physical barriers were installed around some of the trees.

The Japanese cherry blossoms have endured for a century in the nation’s capital, and there are now more than 3,750 trees. In 1991 a few young plants grafted from the trees were gifted back to Japan, and one of them graces the front of a tombstone in a crowded Yokohama cemetery. An adjacent monument reads: “A woman who loved Japanese cherry blossoms rests in peace here.” That woman is Eliza Scidmore.

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Categories: District of Columbia, Plants