The blossoming of the Japanese cherry trees along the Tidal Basin, and the attendant National Cherry Blossom Festival, is an annual springtime rite of passage here in Washington, DC. After several rather drab winter months - often cold and wet even if we seldom see more than a few inches of snow that quickly melt - the beginning of spring is usually heralded by the sudden emergence of bright yellow forsythia blossoms, and the dark green shoots of infant crocuses, daffodils and tulips. But it is the arrival of the cherry blossoms - sakura - that signals the true end of winter. Those of us who reside in and around Washington receive regular reports from the National Park Service as to when we might expect the blossoms to peak. When they finally do, residents and tourists from far and wide descend on the Tidal Basin. The Metro subway trains add cars and they are fuller than usual. Schedules are expanded to accommodate the great influx of people and their wallets who come to town to attend the festival and to observe up close and personal the reawakening of our nation’s capital after a long and relatively quiet winter.
The idea of planting Japanese flowering cherry trees on reclaimed land along Washington’s Potomac River waterfront dates back as early as 1885, but it was not until 1906 that there was any serious attempt to learn whether these trees could survive and reproduce in Washington’s climate. It was exactly 100 years ago, in April 1909, that First Lady Helen Herron Taft took up the cause and almost immediately the city of Tokyo offered to donate 2000 trees for the waterfront plantings. The first of these trees came not from Japan, but from a commercial nursery located in West Chester, Pennsylvania. The formal donation of the trees from Tokyo finally came in August 1909, and they arrived by ship at Seattle in December of that year, and in Washington by train in early 1910. Unfortunately, they had been severely pruned for shipping and were found to be diseased and infested with insects. On January 28, 1910, President William Howard Taft ordered all of these trees, as well as their wrapping and the bamboo packing cases, to be burned immediately. Over the years there have been persistent rumors that some of these original trees were spared the flames and were planted at Hains Point, in East Potomac Park at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. There are a few gnarly looking older trees there, but most people in the know believe this story is nothing more than an urban myth.
Despite this rather embarrassing setback, the governments of the United States and Japan worked together to rectify the situation, and in early 1912 over 3000 stronger Yoshino hybrid trees were shipped to Seattle and then by rail in special freight cars, to Washington. The first of these new trees were planted on the north side of the Tidal basin on March 27, 1912, an event that eventually gave rise to the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival. These trees still stand to this day. The rest of the trees were planted around the Tidal Basin, and in East Potomac Park situated just to the south.
The cherry trees became the focus of the widespread opposition to construction of the Jefferson Memorial at the southern end of the Tidal Basin, beginning in late 1938. This construction necessitated the removal of a number of the trees along with several mature elms, a key landscaping element in Pierre l’Enfant’s original design for the capital city. Construction continued even as the opposition mounted, including instances when protestors had themselves tied to the trees in order to prevent their removal and destruction. Today, however, the Jefferson Memorial has become a lasting symbol of the National Cherry Blossom Festival and I dare say that no one visiting the Tidal Basin in early spring has not taken a photograph of the Memorial framed by the white and pale pink sakura.
Washington’s cherry trees flourished for almost three decades and came to symbolize the advent of spring as well as the enduring friendship between the United States and Japan. This came to an end on the morning of December 7, 1941, and several of the trees were cut down in the days following the bombing attack on Pearl Harbor. In order to save the surviving trees, they suddenly became known as “Oriental” flowering cherry trees . . . sort of like renaming French Fries “Freedom Fries” during the war in Iraq. The cherry trees declined during the war years as a result of general disinterest and the cancellation of the annual festival until 1947, and the protests against their removal at the Jefferson Memorial construction site vanished. Ironically, the parent stock in Tokyo also fell on hard times during the war, and an important symbol of the postwar reconciliation between the two countries occurred in 1952, when the United States government, through the auspices of the National Park Service, offered to ship to Japan cuttings from the descendant trees in Washington in order to help rejuvenate the original grove of cherry trees along the Arakawa River, in Tokyo.
The Japanese government reciprocated with another gift of 3800 additional Yoshino trees in 1965 as part of Lady Bird Johnson’s program to beautify Washington. These trees were planted north of the Tidal Basin, in the vicinity of the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Various breed stocks are also the subject of research conducted at the National Arboretum, and the flowering cherry trees continue to represent the active long-term cooperation between the United States and Japan to ensure the sustenance of these beautiful trees in both countries. In 1999, a new generation of cuttings were planted to guarantee the survival of the cherry trees along the banks of the Potomac River.
As I reported a couple weeks ago, April 1 was pegged by the National Park Service as the day the blossoms would peak. And they did just that! They began to pop out on March 28 and they are expected to remain with us for another week or so, until around April 11. The peak has been quite spectacular this year despite some inclement weather - heavy rains followed by strong, gusty winds - which arrived on the heals of the blossoms. My wife made her annual pilgrimages (she goes as many days as she can) to the Tidal Basin to enjoy and photograph the blossoms in all their splendor (some of which I share with you here). Although I have gone down in past years, I did not go this year. I am not a big crowd person and it is safe to say that tens of thousands make the grand tour of the Tidal Basin on any given day. Instead, I participated in a newer rite of spring here in Washington, DC . . . the kick-off of the new baseball season with a final exhibition game between the hometown Nationals and the bad boys from Charm City - the Baltimore Orioles. It was an opportunity to meet the players and wish them well on what will only be an uphill season. I ate a ballpark dog with a couple of brews and cheered the Nats on to a 5-4 victory. Whether it is the arrival of the cherry blossoms . . . or the first ball game of the year . . . spring has arrived in Washington, DC.
NEXT WEEK: A Grand and Noble Beast . . . finally!!