The arrival of cherry blossoms is a very special time in Washington D. C. It’s a celebration of spring, friendship, beauty and joy. People can’t help but admire a delightful spectacle of blooming white and pink flowers, which cover the branches of cherry trees around the Tidal Basin and in the city.
This year the cherry trees started to bloom when it was still pretty cold. The temperature was in the low 40s and 50s. Moreover, they started to bloom in spite of a snow storm, which happened a week before. We were anxious that the blossoms would be killed by the cold. To our surprise, we saw cherry trees in bloom around the Tidal Basin. Their branches, loaded with gentle white and pink blossoming flowers, were hanging over the greenish blue water of the Tidal Basin. When the water in the Basin is calm the reflection of the blooms gives it a soft, milky hue. The intricate pink and white lace of flowers lights up the faces of the spectators and brings joy to their hearts.
The tradition of celebrating cherry blossoms was brought to Washington D. C. from Japan by David Fairchild. He studied botany and later got a job in Washington D. C. working for the Government as a food explorer. He traveled around the world, studying different plants, fruits, and cuisines. He introduced peaches from China, mangoes from India, and avocadoes from Chile to the U.S.
While visiting Japan in 1902, David Fairchild was fascinated by the blooming sakura (cherry trees) and the Japanese tradition called Hanami. During Hanami Japanese view sakura in bloom and have picnics and parties under the blooming trees.
In 1905 David Fairchild ordered 125 cherry trees from his friend Uhei Suzuki, who owned the Yokohama Nursery Company in Japan. He planted these trees on his family’s 10 acres property in Chevy Chase, Maryland. The beauty of Fairchild’s garden full of cherry blossoms attracted so many admirers that he ordered another 300 cherry trees from his friend’s nursery as a gift to the city of Chevy Chase.
In 1908 Fairchild gave lectures in one of the Universities in D. C. and talked about his travels and the custom of viewing cherry tree blossoms in Japan. He contemplated that it would be a great idea to beautify the D. C. area with cherry trees. His idea was picked by the “Washington Star” newspaper and an article about cherry blossoms was published on the front page. The idea reached President Taft, who found it interesting not only as a beautification project but also as a useful tool to improve diplomatic relations with Japan.
The Japanese Government found the idea an excellent reason to express a desire for friendship and share a beautiful Japanese tradition with the United States. The mayor of Tokyo, Yukio Ozaki, took responsibility for choosing the best sakura trees in the country. Instead of three hundred trees, initially ordered by David Fairchild on behalf of the President Taft, two thousand cherry trees were sent across the Pacific Ocean as a gift of friendship. However, so many trees would not fit on a ship and their roots were cut to accommodate all of them. After the cherry trees were delivered to the port of Seattle, they were packed and loaded onto railcars for a two week journey to Washington D. C.
Upon arrival the cherry trees were carefully examined by David Fairchild and his professional opponent Charles Marlatt. In fact, Marlatt had always opposed the idea of introducing plants from abroad. He argued that the plants from foreign lands carry parasites on their roots and trunks. These previously unknown parasites would infest soil and damage crops in the U.S. Fairchild and Marlatt even published their articles, with opposing views about introducing foreign plants to the U.S., in the National Geographic magazine in 1911.
Marlatt’s concerns proved to be true. A few kinds of parasites were found on the roots of the cherry trees. With a heavy heart President Taft ordered the cherry trees to be burned. It looked as if this mishap could jeopardize the diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Japan.
Meanwhile, the mayor of Tokyo Yukio Ozaki came to the U.S. to attend the ceremony of planting the cherry trees only to see the gift to be destroyed. David Fairchild came to visit him and to apologize, but Yukio Ozaki met him with his own expression of regret for causing trouble with the infected trees.
Another batch of three thousand and twenty younger cherry trees was promptly sent from Tokyo. This time Yukio Ozaki invited the best experts from all over Japan. They examined the roots of the trees carefully and fumigated them. The trees were loaded aboard a large fast ship and transported to America. This time it was a success. All trees turned out to be healthy.
On March 27, 1912 the First Lady, Helen Taft, planted the first cherry tree during a ceremony in West Potomac Park. The wife of the Japanese ambassador, the Viscountess Chinda, planted the second tree. David Fairchild participated in the ceremony and helped to plant some more cherry trees. The rest were planted later.
Since then the National Cherry Blossom Festival has been held each spring with a parade, flying kites, parties, fireworks, and other festivities. Millions of tourists come to Washington D. C. to enjoy viewing cherry blossoms. So many different languages can be heard on the banks of the Tidal Basin, especially during blossom season. The wonderful friendship between the U.S. and Japan was forged and made stronger by the beautiful gift of thousands of cherry trees. It is alive and thriving, as well as cherry blossoms in Washington D. C., bringing together nations and hearts.
The cherry blossoms were awesome!
Bringer of Blossoms. Daniel Stone. National Geographic History. March/April 2018.