The Fascinating Story Of How Washington DC’s Cherry Blossoms Came Into Being

   Ever wonder how the celebration of Washington DC’s cherry blossoms came into being? It’s a fascinating story whose origins go back centuries. Yes, I said centuries. To discover what happened,we have to go back in time.
   Japan has been celebrating the blooming of cherry tree flowers (known as sakura) for many, many years. Probably over a thousand. The tradition of viewing blooming flowers (also known as hanami) was likely more about plum blossoms early on but then morphed into cherry flowers, particularly during the Heian Period (794-1185). Through the years, references to flowering cherry trees became quite common in Japanese literature and art, for their appearance is seen by many as a time of celebration, renewal, and a new start.
   Now we must travel to the 1800s. Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore was born in 1856 in Madison, Wisconsin and attended Oberlin College (Ohio) in 1873-1874. She moved to Washington DC and got involved in writing, travel, and photography. She became a member of the National Geographic Society where she served in a number of positions through the years and traveled quite extensively. She wrote articles and books about her travels but also delved into other subjects such as politics and manners. In 1885, after returning from a trip to Japan (where she would spend a significant amount of time through the years), she proposed to the U.S. Army Superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds that Japanese cherry trees be brought over and planted along sections of the Potomac waterfront. To her disappointment, there was little to no interest. So, over the following 24 years, she approached every new Superintendent with her idea.
   In 1906, Dr David Fairchild, an official with the Department of Agriculture, obtained some Japanese cherry trees that he planted on his own property as an experiment to see if they would thrive in DC’s climate. It was a success, after which he began advocating them as a good option to plant along DC avenues. In 1908, he gave children saplings to be planted at every DC school in honor of Arbor Day. At a speech on that day, he promoted the idea of transforming the Speedway (which no longer exists) into a “field of cherries.” This probably gave Eliza Scidmore, who was in attendance, hope and encouragement in her quest of importing cherry trees to Washington.
   In 1909, Eliza Scidmore worked to raise money for her idea and wrote a letter to First Lady Helen Herron Taft regarding her proposal. The First Lady had spent time in Japan and liked the idea. Dr. Jokichi Takamine, a chemist who was in Washington around this time with Mr Midzuno (the Japanese Consul to New York), heard about what was going on and asked Mrs Taft if she would accept a donation of 2000 cherry trees from Japan. Mr Midzuno thought this was an excellent idea and suggested it be done in the name of Tokyo. He talked to city’s mayor who in turn agreed. It was set. First Lady Helen Herron Taft would accept 2000 Japanese cherry trees as a gift from the City of Tokyo. On January 6, 1910, the cherry trees arrived in Washington DC to be planted along the Potomac.
   But then disaster struck. You didn’t think it would be easy did you lol?
   It was discovered that the trees were infested with insects and nematodes and as a result would have to be burned. Yes burned, which they were. Although according to one article, a dozen or so were preserved for study. The piece further says that they were “planted out in the experimental plot of the bureau, and there will be an expert entomologist with a dark lantern, and a butterfly net, cyanide bottle and other lethal weapons placed on guard over the trees, to see what sort of bugs develop.”
   After this, Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki and others decided to try this again. So after more work, on March 26, 1912, 3020 Japanese cherry trees arrived in Washington DC. The next day, Helen Herron Taft and the Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese Ambassador, planted the first two trees along the Tidal Basin.
  And yes, you guessed it: the rest is history!

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