The Witness Tree

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sculpture glowing in morning sun with in bloom cherry trees in the foreground.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sculpture glowing in the morning sun with in bloom cherry trees in the foreground.

NPS photo by John Donoghue

Imagine Washington, DC without cherry blossoms. It’s difficult to do, as Japanese flowering cherry tree blossoms have become synonymous with springtime in our nation’s capital. The multitudes of people who gather joyously at the Tidal Basin each spring can thank Tokyo, Japan for gifting these iconic trees to the American people in 1912.

This renowned gift of friendship was preceded by a lesser known gift of cherry trees given by Japan in 1910. Shortly after the gift of 2,000 trees arrived in Washington, DC, excitement turned to dismay when U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors declared that the trees were diseased and infested with insects. Fearing harm to native agriculture, they determined that the trees had to be destroyed. President William Howard Taft accepted the recommendation, and issued an order to burn the trees.

This unfortunate turn of events was handled most graciously by Japanese officials. Undeterred, they quickly made arrangements for an even larger gift of 3,020 trees. These were the origin of the beloved cherry trees surrounding the Tidal Basin today.

For many years, it was assumed that none of the trees from Japan’s 1910 gift had survived destruction. Evidence discovered many years later by the National Park Service (NPS) seems to suggest otherwise!

Robert DeFeo, former Chief Horticulturist for the NPS National Capital Region, cited USDA records which indicate that two dozen trees were initially saved and quarantined for observation by entomologists. Although the records do not indicate a location, DeFeo believed that the trees may have been planted near Hains Point, on land that is now part of the East Potomac Golf Course. In 1910, this land was undeveloped and barren, having recently been created from dredging the Potomac River.

A cluster of old Yoshino cherry trees on the golf course has attracted curiosity over the years. Planted in rows, indicating deliberate planting, these trees are spaced much further apart than typical nursery plantings, which would be appropriate for a quarantine project.

Adding further credence to DeFeo’s theory is the large size of the trees, and the presence of substantial decay and deadwood, indicating that the trees likely date from the early 1900s. The hollow condition of most of the principal branches is consistent with a past insect infestation. Even more convincing, DNA analysis determined that the genetic makeup of these trees does not match the DNA of any of the surviving 1912 Yoshino cherry trees.

Because no other cherry tree plantings are known to have occurred between 1912 and a second gift of trees donated by Japan in 1965, these mystery cherry trees may very well be survivors of the doomed 1910 shipment. The likely historical significance of these cherry trees led the National Park Service to designate them as Witness Trees in 2006.

Recognizing the importance of documenting trees which have “witnessed” significant historic and cultural events, the National Park Service established The Witness Tree Protection Program in 2006, as part of the Historic American Landscapes Survey. Developed as a pilot project for the nation, 24 biologically and historically significant trees in the National Capital Region were designated as Witness Trees. In addition to these cherry trees, other Witness Trees on or near the National Mall include the Jefferson Elm near the Smithsonian Castle, the Grant Memorial Bur Oak, the Botanic Garden Elm, and the Andrew Jackson Southern Magnolia on the White House lawn.

Imagine what these trees have “witnessed,” and the stories they could tell! If only trees could talk…

National Mall and Memorial Parks

Last updated: April 4, 2024