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The history behind Washington’s beloved cherry blossoms
Jill Odom | April 6, 2018
Photo of Cherry Blossom Trees aligning the shore of the Tidal Basin with bright blue clear skies

Cherry blossoms line the Tidal Basin.
Photo:

After a series of tumultuous weather conditions and two peak bloom prediction delays, the National Park Service announced yesterday it is officially peak bloom season for the Washington D.C. cherry trees.

The best viewing days of the Yoshino trees will be for the next four to seven days, but the National Park Service (NPS) says the trees can hold the blossoms up to two weeks under ideal conditions.

Peak bloom date is defined as the day when 70 percent of the Yoshino cherry blossoms are open. It generally occurs between the last week of March and the first week of April, but unusually warm or cold temperatures can result in early or late blooms.

Last year, half of the blossoms were lost due to a late frost that happened March 14-16. Some late frosts can prevent the trees from blooming at all.

Forecasting peak bloom is almost impossible to do more than 10 days in advance. This explains why the NPS originally said the blooming would occur during March 17-20 before changing it to March 27-31 after cooler temperatures slowed the progression of the blooming phases. The bloom time was delayed again with a prediction that April 8-12 would be the prime time for the cherry trees.

Due to Mother Nature’s oh-so-finicky nature, the season was moved back up with the recent warmup of temperatures.

History of the trees 

So where did the cherry trees come from? The short version you’ve probably heard is the original trees were a gift of friendship from Japan, but there is far more backstory to the trees and much has happened to them during their time in D.C. over the years.

Photo of Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore

Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore

The first female board member of the National Geographic Society and travel writer, Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, encountered Japanese cherry blossoms during her visit to her brother George, who worked for the U.S. Consular Service, and fell in love.

Upon her return to D.C. in 1885, she set out on a mission to have the cherry trees planted in the Potomac Park. She spent the next 24 years presenting her ideas to every Superintendent of Public Buildings and Grounds, only to be rejected each time.

Meanwhile, David Fairchild, a doctor and a U.S. Department of Agriculture official, was also enamored with the Japanese cherry trees and had successfully planted 100 of the trees on his personal property.

Scidmore and Fairchild met during Arbor Day in 1908 and began working on a plan to acquire cherry trees for the park. Scidmore sent a letter to first lady Helen Taft requesting approval of the plan and help in acquiring the trees.

Two days later, she received confirmation from the first lady, who set about making arrangements for the cherry trees. Famed Japanese chemist Dr. Jokichi Takamine, who was in town at the time, learned of the plan and offered Taft a gift of 2,000 cherry trees from the city of Tokyo. She readily accepted.

Yet when the trees arrived in 1910, the USDA found that they were infested with insects, nematodes and diseases. The trees were burned to protect native plants, but it was a tense diplomatic situation. The Secretary of State and Japanese Ambassador made new arrangements and Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki offered a new gift of 3,020 trees.

Twelve varieties were prepared and carefully observed to ensure they were in perfect health before shipping them to the United States. This new batch reached the capital in March 1912 and later that month the first lady and the Japanese ambassador’s wife planted the first two trees, which are still standing today.

Photo of Cherry Blossoms across the bay from the Washington Monument

Photo: Pixabay

The trees quickly became a beloved part of the city and outraged female activists actually chained themselves to the trees when the Tidal Basin was selected to be the location of the new Jefferson Memorial in 1938. President Franklin D. Roosevelt told the activists that the trees were simply being transplanted, not cut down, and the rest of the tree removal was conducted in the night to avoid another Cherry Tree Rebellion.

Three years later, after the recent attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans turned their hostilities toward the trees and four were chopped down. While some called for the cherry trees to be uprooted and burned, the NPS decided to call the cherry trees “Oriental” instead of “Japanese” during the span of the war.

D.C.’s cherry trees were menaced once more in 1999 when beavers brought down four of them and injured others. The furry culprits were eventually caught and relocated.

Fewer than 100 of the original gifted cherry trees remain, but according to , tree grafts were gifted back to Japan and one of them can be found in front of a tombstone in Yokohoma Foreign Cemetery. The marker is for Eliza Scidmore and it reads: “A woman who loved Japanese cherry blossoms rests in peace here.”

Types of cherry trees

According to NPS, there are approximately 3,800 cherry trees within the park. While Yoshino cherry is the most predominant variety, there are quite a few other types present with different blooms.

Yoshino Cherry (Prunus x yedoenis) – Comprising approximately 70 percent of the total number of cherry trees.

Kwanzan Cherry (Prunus serrulata “Kwanzan”) – 13 percent of total population.

Takesimensis Cherry (Prunus takesimensis) – 5 percent of total population.

Autumn Flowering Cherry (Prunus subhirtella var. autumnalis) – 3 percent of total population.

Akebono Cherry (Prunus x yedoensis “Akebono”) – 3 percent of total population.

Weeping Cherry (Prunus Subhirtella var. pendula) –  2.4 percent of total population.

Usuzumi Cherry (Prunus spachiana f. ascendens) – 1.3 percent of total population.

Sargent Cherry (Prunus sargentii) – less than 1 percent of total population.

Afterglow Cherry (Prunus x yedoensis “Afterglow”) –  less than 1 percent of total population.

Shirofugen Cherry (Prunus serulata “Shirofugen”) – less than 1 percent of total population.

Okame Cherry (Prunus x “Okame”) – less than 1 percent of total population.

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