The Gift That Keeps Giving
Japan originally sent 2,000 trees in 1910, but they were found to be diseased and had to be burned. In 1912, Japan sent a second batch of trees, which became the “first trees.”
Plaques mark the two original trees believed to be those planted by the first lady, Helen Herron Taft and Viscountess Chinda, the wife of the Japanese ambassador in a small ceremony on March 27, 1912. Only one hundred of the first trees still remain among today’s population of around 3,770 trees.
One of the cherry trees’ strongest advocates was Eliza Ruhama Scidmore, a world traveler, writer and editor and the first female board member of the National Geographic Society. After her first visit to Japan in 1885, she tried for 24 years to convince the powers that be to plant cherry trees along the Potomac waterfront. Finally, she decided in 1909 to raise funds to buy the trees and donate them to the city. We can imagine her delight when, after writing to the First Lady to tell of her plan, she received a reply just two days later from Mrs. Taft saying “I have taken the matter up and am promised the trees.”
The plan quickly gained steam when wealthy Japanese chemist Jokichi Takamine, who discovered adrenaline among other things, and the Japanese consul in New York proposed a donation of 2,000 trees from the city of Tokyo, paid for by Takamine.
After the first batch arrived diseased and had to be burned, Tokyo’s Mayor Yukio Ozaki, pictured here with his daughters walking along the Tidal Basin, and Takamine followed through with a second donation of 3020 replacement trees, again funded by Takamine. These trees came from cuttings from a renowned stand of trees lining the Arakawa River, a Tokyo suburb.
In 1938 a group of women threatened to chain themselves to a group of cherry trees to prevent them from being chopped down to build the new Jefferson Memorial. In a compromise, more trees were planted along the water to frame the memorial.
In 1952, the United States donated cuttings from the trees back to the parent grove of trees in Arakawa River which suffered during World War II, a practice which continued at other times to provide tree stock to Japanese communities and horticulturalists.
In 1965, the Japanese Government gave 3,800 additional trees to First Lady Lady Bird Johnson.
Today two species of cherry tree dominate the capital, though there are specimens of 13 types in total. There are about 2,763 Yoshino cherry trees (Prunus x yedoensis), which grow around the Tidal Basin and the Washington Monument. They display a cluster of white blossoms and bloom about two weeks before the other variety, the Kwanzan cherry (Prunus x serrulata). The Kwanzan cherry tree grows mainly in East Potomac Park, yielding pink pairs of blooms.