March 27, 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the ceremonial planting of Japanese flowering cherry trees along the Tidal Basin by First Lady Helen Taft and the Viscountess Iwa Chinda, wife of the Japanese Ambassador. From her first visit to Japan in 1885, noted authority on Asian culture and newspaper correspondent Eliza R. Scidmore advocated the planting of such trees in the nation's capital. The years turned into decades in her quest to beautify the city. Despite her lack of success, this was a formative time for Washington, D.C., as a series of damaging floods underscored the need for dredging the Potomac River in order to create land barriers which would protect the city. During the 1890s, two new bodies of land known as East Potomac Park and West Potomac Park formed a protective barrier around the areas susceptible to flooding. Between the two lay a Tidal Basin engineered to allow high water on the river to flow into and then out of the basin, reinforcing the city's protection. This grand new expanse of land lay wide open with possibilities.
As the nineteenth century turned to the twentieth, major building projects transformed what was known as a backwater amongst world capitals into the framework of the picturesque city we know today. The city, taking its cue from the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, began to build and plan structures reminiscent of the White City, such as the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History, and the Lincoln Memorial. It was in this atmosphere, known as the "City Beautiful" movement, that Scidmore met Dr. David Fairchild. Fairchild, a prominent figure at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, began introducing Japanese flowering cherry trees to his estate in Chevy Chase, MD, just north of the city. In the closing of an Arbor Day ceremony in 1908, Dr. Fairchild called for a large number of these trees to be planted where the speedway around the Tidal Basin was located, which would create a "Sea of Cherries" in this newly reclaimed land. Hearing Dr. Fairchild's words that day was a kindred spirit, in the form of Scidmore. The passion of these two advocates to adorn the city with natural beauty, a complement to the burgeoning architectural wonders both then in construction and planning stages, fell on a sympathetic ear.
In April 1909, First Lady Taft, upon reading a letter sent by Scidmore which presented both her and Fairchild's sentiments, heartily agreed. She was familiar with the trees herself, having lived in Japan for a time. A fundraising campaign was proposed, yet unnecessary, for Dr. Jokichi Takamine, discoverer of adrenaline, and Japanese Consul General in New York, Mr. K. Midzuno offered a donation of 2,000 trees as a gift to the people of the United States, in the name of the people of Tokyo.
Upon their arrival in January 1910, the 2,000 trees were inspected and unfortunately found to be infested with parasitic nematodes. Ultimately, the trees were burned, as they were deemed unsafe in their condition to be planted in large numbers. Two years later, a gift of 3,020 young, healthy trees arrived in Washington, D.C. On March 27, along the northwest wall of the Tidal Basin, the first gift tree was planted. Every spring which followed this occasion, millions of visitors descended upon the area around the Tidal Basin, East Potomac Park, and the grounds of the Washington Monument as more trees planted from the clippings of originals and subsequent gifts from Japan filled out the park. In 1935, the viewing of the blooming of the cherry blossoms became an organized event known as the Cherry Blossom Festival.
Destruction of the 1910 shipment of trees. (U.S. National Arboretum)
The following handful of years were very hard on the Japanese flowering cherry trees, for there was a full-scale rebellion by prominent ladies of Washington society who objected to the planning of the site for a new memorial to President Thomas Jefferson along the southern edge of the Tidal Basin. In November 1938, many of these ladies chained themselves to the cherry trees which were destined to be removed for the construction of the new memorial. The ladies eventually left the area, after showing their disdain for the removal of the 26-year-old trees. Eventually the "Cherry Tree Rebellion" as it came to be known, proved a victory for both sides. Advocates of the memorial saw the formal dedication take place on Thomas Jefferson's 200th birthday, April 13, 1943, and beautifully framing the new structure were hundreds of newly planted, young cherry trees. The coming of World War II resulted in a handful of the cherry trees being vandalized after the attack on Pearl Harbor. A moratorium was placed on the annual springtime festivals for the duration of the war as well.
Protesting the cutting of cherry trees for the Thomas Jefferson Memorial construction.
At the end of World War II relations between the United States and Japan again grew strong. As symbols of friendship, the two nations continued to give one another gifts. Clippings from Tidal Basin trees were sent back to Japan to help replenish groves of cherry trees which were diminished during the war. The nation of Japan bestowed upon the park in 1954 the gift of an ancient stone lantern, which is ceremonially lit at the beginning of each Cherry Blossom Festival. This gift marks the 100th anniversary of formal relations between the two nations. It stands in the grove of trees where the first one was planted in 1912, along the northwest edge of the Tidal Basin. Near the exit of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial stands a decorative stone Japanese pagoda given as a gesture of goodwill in 1958. Pagodas are the dominant architecture in Japanese Shinto temples which honor those who have come before us.
Japanese flowering cherry trees surround the grounds of many of these sites, for the brief duration of their brilliant blossoms symbolize the brevity of life for the people of Japan. It is therefore quite fitting that these trees adorn the grounds upon which we as a nation have placed monuments and memorials to our forebears. In 1965, further gifts of 3,800 trees from Japan were planted on the grounds of the Washington Monument and elsewhere. Through the years, the reciprocal gifts of the two nations were tempered by the steady arrival of visitors every spring to witness the blooming of these magnificent trees. The sakura, as they are known to the people of Japan, bear deeply important symbolism that has drawn people together for generations. The cherry blossom is portrayed second only to the moon in Japanese art, and the amount of poems written about them is virtually limitless. The festival held every spring in Washington, D.C. is a clear indication of how the U.S. has blended facets of cultures from around the world into something truly unique, something American.