Cherry Trees: A First Lady's Legacy

Photo of Lady Bird Johnson planting a cherry blossom tree.
Lady Bird Johnson planting a cherry tree.

Library of Congress

When the Tidal Basin is abloom with its annual display of pink and white petals, we take time to remember the presidential first ladies. Helen Taft was the first presidential spouse to observe the traditional Japanese custom of hanami, or flower watching, in the United States. Subsequent first ladies have continued the tradition of DC’s “spring rite” as honorary chairs of the Cherry Blossom Festival.

Helen Taft (1909 – 1913) is credited with planting the first two cherry trees on March 27, 1912 just east of today’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. In the company of the Japanese ambassador’s wife, the two ladies set their feet to spades to turn the earth to receive the first trees.

Taft had explored the area of Washington known as the Speedway or former mudflats when she drove one of the fleet of new White House cars there. With a discerning eye, she envisioned the creation of a new park dedicated to music. She suggested that a bandstand should occupy the space for twice weekly concerts open to all.

Word traveled to Eliza Scidmore, a National Geographic Society board member and cherry blossom advocate. She wrote to Taft about planting cherry trees as a backdrop to the concerts. Helen Taft quickly agreed to the plan since she was familiar with the trees from time spent in Japan.

The first concert was scheduled for Saturday, April 17, 1909 with some cherry trees in bloom. Ten thousands people engulfed the presidential limousine as the Tafts arrived. The new “democratic” park brought everybody out as it does today in early spring with strolls on the Tidal Basin. The great inspiration was then music, today the cherry trees take center stage.

The incoming administration of Woodrow Wilson (1913 – 1921) continued regard towards the cherry trees. On May 7, 1914, the White House Blue Room was perfumed by cherry blossom bouquets and white lillies for the wedding of the Wilson’s youngest daughter Eleanor “Nellie” Wilson and Treasury Secretary William McAdoo. At the direction of First Lady Ellen Wilson, the ceremony was a small, intimate event.

When Florence Harding (1921 – 1923) took up residence, she directed gardeners to plant cherry trees on the grounds of the White House. The following spring, Harding, with clippers in hand secured fresh blossoms for the executive mansion. Forty years later, Jacqueline Kennedy would also arrange seasonal bouquets from the cherry trees.

President Calvin Coolidge (1923 – 1929) boasted about the cherry trees in a letter to First Lady Grace Coolidge on April 7, 1928. Grace was in Northampton, Massachusetts caring for her ill mother when she received this letter from the White House:

“My Dear Grace:

Your letter of this morning gives a much more encouraging report about your mother, other than what I had been getting from the doctor. We are having another bright sunny day. The cherry blossoms are coming out. The south grounds are all prepared for Easter Monday…”

The long tenure of Eleanor Roosevelt (1933 – 1945) in the White House gave her ample opportunity to experience the cherry blossoms. During her first month as first lady, she was dogged by reporters looking for a story. She provided it when her horse slipped in the mud in Potomac Park. The first lady recounted to photographers how the horse fell to its knees and “I slid off very gracefully right into the mud. It was not a real fall, I just slipped down to the ground.” Mrs Roosevelt remounted. Her ride continued and she took solace in observing the cherry blossoms and Japanese magnolias.

The following year, Roosevelt initiated the annual tradition of the cherry blossom festival. She invited a delegation from the Japanese embassy for a full day celebration beginning at dawn on the Tidal Basin. The day was packed with events including a parade, a ball, the crowning of a cherry blossom queen, a fireworks display, and a theatrical production, The Mikado, held on the grounds of the Washington Monument at the Sylvan Theater.

During the 1934 festival, a young congressional aide named Lyndon Johnson, took time out to smell the flowers and send a postcard to his future bride, Lady Bird Taylor in Karnack, Texas. His card is on display in the LBJ Library. It shows the Lincoln Memorial surrounded by blooming cherry trees.

Eleanor Roosevelt continued to boost the cherry trees. Plans for the Thomas Jefferson Memorial started to emerge in the 1930s and initially lead to outrage. It was feared that the proposed site would be cleared of flourishing cherry trees to make way for the new memorial.The first lady enters the fray with a commentary on the new memorial from her My Day column, “It is beginning to look very beautiful, and someday when the cherry trees around it bloom in great profusion, people will forget that we were afraid of spoiling the landscape around the Basin.”

Many years later, in an April 16, 1956 My Day column, Roosevelt noted that spring comes earlier to Washington, DC than at her home in Hyde Park, N.Y. She observed this while viewing the cherry blossoms in full bloom from her car window as she travelled from the Capitol from the airport.

President Harry S. Truman and First Lady Elizabeth “Bess” Truman (1945 – 1953) also expressed appreciation for the blossoms. On an evening in late March, the president and first lady return to the White House and behold a large cherry tree planted that day near the northwest gate in full bloom pleasantly scenting the night air.

Mamie Eisenhower (1953 – 1961) was an enthusiastic cherry blossom booster who crowned the 1953 queen, Janet Bailey. By that year, the festival lasted five days and included a fashion show and luncheon. Eisenhower, along with Second Lady Pat Nixon were photographed at the 1958 show modeling their hats. Eisenhower wore an upswept hat with red peony petals, and Mrs. Nixon had on an off face pill box covered in pink and red peonies.

Jacqueline Kennedy (1961 – 1963) first encountered the cherry trees in 1941 when she was 11 years old on a trip to Washington with her sister and mother. Her mother extolled the beauty of the blossoms and praised her father for arranging the trip. It is no coincidence that the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in New York’s Central Park is adorned with Japanese cherry trees.

Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson (1963 – 1969) was known as a cherry blossom planter. In 1965, she reenacted the 1912 ceremony with the Japanese ambassador’s wife as she accepted a new shipment of 3,800 Yoshino trees from Japan. Johnson’s daughter, Lynda, observed that her mother absolutely loved the cherry blossoms. She recalled family photographs taken at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial celebrating the trees. Johnson’s grandfather and father were both named Thomas Jefferson Taylor.

Patricia Nixon (1969 – 1974) had a long familiarity with the trees, since she came to Washington as a congressman’s wife. She was pictured with the future president and her daughter Tricia bicycling beneath the canopies of white and pink. As first lady, she took a stroll with the president during his first year in office on the Tidal Basin on April 14, 1969.

The following year, Nixon was caught in traffic while the Cherry Blossom Parade took place. She took her predicament in stride, remarking that she had her own parade and loved it. The cherry blossom queen waved at her and blew kisses.

Betty Ford (1974 – 1977) was very familiar with the cherry blossoms having been a congressman’s wife for the past 24 years. She always celebrated her April 8 birthday during the festival. In 1976, she came out to the Tidal Basin for a chorus of Happy Birthday sung by the cherry blossom princesses.

Nancy Reagan (1981 – 1989) was consequential in fostering Japanese-American relations when the Japanese ambassador presented her with a young sapling cultivated from one of Helen Taft’s trees. Some varieties of the cherry trees that grew on the banks of the Arakawa River in Tokyo and were sent to the U.S. in 1912 ceased flourishing there. Reagan sent back to Japan descendants of those original trees that now grace Tokyo. The tree she sent was named the “President Reagan.”

President George H. W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush (1989 – 1993) were spotted on the Tidal Basin enjoying the blossoms on April 8, 1992. The proceeds from the prior year’s luncheon and fashion show were earmarked for Mrs. Bush’s literacy program.

Hillary Clinton (1993 – 2001) followed Mrs. Taft and Mrs. Johnson in the tradition of planting cherry trees. In both 1997 and 1999, Clinton put spade to ground and turned the earth in preparation of the receipt of young cherry trees.

Laura Bush (2001 – 2009) presided over the 65th year of the Cherry Blossom Festival with a kickoff gala at the Kennedy Center. The event that evening featured the tapping of a barrel of sake, the Japanese rice wine. Toasts were offered to international understanding, goodwill, and peace as “the drink of the gods” delightfully trickled down their throats.

In an April 17, 2015 visit to Washington, Laura Bush waxed nostalgic about her walks around the Tidal Basin with a friend early in the morning before other walkers were out. She missed those times and stated, “Washington is a beautiful city. It's like a big national monument. I miss the city of Washington, for sure.”

Michelle Obama (2009 – 2017) joined the Taft-Johnson-Clinton tradition as a “planting first lady.” She presided over the centennial celebration of the cherry trees in 2012, reenacting the 1912 planting with a tree situated south of the Lincoln Memorial along the Potomac River. She was accompanied by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the Japanese ambassador to the US, Ichiro Fujisaki and his wife, William H. Taft IV , a great grandson of the president and his wife, and Fujiko Hara, granddaughter of Yubio Ozaki who as mayor of Tokyo arranged for the donation of the first 3,000 trees.

In her first year as first lady, Mrs. Obama asked the Secret Service to arrange an outing to engage in hanami , or flower viewing. She was transported by an agent while wearing a baseball cap disguise. Upon arriving at the Tidal Basin, the agent decided the crowds were too thick and the danger of recognizing the first lady during the walk was too great. She went to a less crowded area.

Mrs. Obama had other “brushes” with cherry blossoms during her tenure. In 2013, she was featured on the cover of Vogue with new bangs as fashion icon seated next to a vase of cherry blossoms ready to bloom.

At a White House state dinner for Japan on April 27, 2015, all the stops are pulled out as the new Obama presidential china is debuted. The tables are set with red chopsticks and pink cherry blossoms.

The previous month on a visit to Japan, the first lady exclaimed to the emperor that his cherry trees, just booming, were exquisite in their beauty. He remarked that they had originated from the southern islands of Okinawa.

Melania Trump will take her turn next as honorary chair of the National Cherry Blossom Festival and add to the first lady lore of Japanese-American friendship.