The Trees That Symbolize International Friendship – cherry trees of Washington DC’s Tidal Basin – Brief Article
Washington, DC’s Tidal Basin cherries hold a special place in my heart. That’s because reading a story about them in a 1986 issue of American Forests magazine changed my life.
That postage stamp-sized article reported that AMERICAN FORESTS Gary Moll had worked with the National Park Service to take cuttings from the last of the original cherries presented to President William Howard Taft in 1912 by the city of Tokyo. The cuttings were an attempt to preserve and propagate those original historic trees.
I love history–it was one of my majors in college–and I had been gathering and planting seeds from historic trees on my own for years. What, I thought, if it could be done on a consistent, purposeful national level? Think of the history that could be preserved and handed down.
Nowhere is that history more dazzling than in the story of those cherries, which turn Washington’s Tidal Basin breathtaking shades of pink each spring. They demonstrate how the culture and peoples of two international cities can bond and how that bond can hold fast, even after a war between the nations.
Back in 1906, a U.S. Department of Agriculture official by the name of Dr. David Fairchild was so delighted by the beauty of Japan’s cherry trees that he imported 100 of them to plant on his property in the DC suburb of Chevy Chase, Maryland. The trees adapted so well that the Fairchilds began a campaign to Shave them planted throughout the nation’s capital.
To this end, they purchased 300 trees in 1908 and gave each local elementary school one to plant on its grounds for Arbor Day. At the end of an Arbor Day lecture that year, Dr. Fairchild proposed that cherries be planted along the length of Independence Avenue.
In the audience that day was a woman named Eliza Seidmore who had traveled in Japan and had been trying since 1885 to convince each superintendent of building and grounds in Washington of that same idea.
Suddenly, it was an idea whose time bad come.
In 1909, as part of her campaign to raise money to buy the trees and present them to the city, Mrs. Seidmore wrote to the new first lady, Helen Herron Taft. Mrs. Taft had lived in Japan and took up the cause at once.
When the Japanese consul heard of the plan, he offered to donate 2,000 trees as a gift to Washington from the city of Tokyo. Unfortunately, when the much-anticipated trees arrived in January 1910, they were infested with insects and disease. This made for a touchy diplomatic situation, but both the U.S. government and the Japanese consul expressed their deep regret, and the trees were burned.
The mayor of Tokyo immediately paid to replace the trees, shipping more than 3,000 trees of 12 varieties from the stock of a famous group of cherries on the bank of the Arakawa River in a suburb of Tokyo.
On March 27, 1912, first lady Taft and Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese Ambassador, planted the first two cherries–the Yoshino variety–on the northern bank of the Tidal Basin, near what is now Independence Avenue SW. It took eight years for the remainder of the trees to be planted, bringing to the nation’s capital the splendor and beauty envisioned by Mrs. Seidmore, Dr. Fairchild, and Mrs. Taft. In 1934, Washington sponsored its first Cherry Blossom Festival.
In 1952, cuttings from Washington’s cherries were sent back to Japan to help restore the original Arakawa River grove, which had been decimated by the war. What a wonderful gesture of reconciliation and peace!
And what a wonderful thing for Gary Moll and the others to have taken cuttings from the Washington trees. Cherries don’t live forever and the ones in Washington have been subject to beavers and other hazards. Most of those original trees are gone now. But their offspring live on.
And so does the great plan I hatched that day in my imagination. A call I made to AMERICAN FORESTS after reading the cherry tree story began what has become the Famous & Historic Trees program, through which you can order the offspring of many historic trees to plant in your own yard. Cherry tree, anyone?
Jeff Meyer directs AMERICAN FORESTS’ Famous & Historic Thees program.
COPYRIGHT 2001 American Forests
COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group