Japanese cherry blossom has enchanted the Japanese for centuries. When foreigners started to visit Japan, they soon fell in love with sakura, too. This love is exemplified by the 3,000 cherry trees in Washington, DC, USA.
On March 27, 1912 (Meiji 45), two Yoshino cherry trees were planted in Washington, DC by Helen Herron Taft, the wife of then US President William Howard Taft (1857–1930), and the wife of Japanese Ambassador Sutemi Chinda (珍田捨巳, 1857–1929).
These two trees were the first of a total of 3,020 cherry trees that Japan presented to the people of the United States of America. The simple ceremony would eventually develop into Washington’s renowned National Cherry Blossom Festival.
It took a long time before Japan’s national symbol could blossom in Washington. The following timeline introduces the events and people that made it possible.
1885 (Meiji 18)
After her first visit to Japan, American writer, photographer and geographer Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore (1856–1928) approaches the U.S. Army Superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds with the proposal that cherry trees be planted along the reclaimed Potomac waterfront in Washington. Her suggestion is ignored for over twenty-four years, as Mrs. Scidmore approaches every new superintendent.
1906 (Meiji 39)
American botanist and plant explorer David Grandison Fairchild (1869–1954) imports seventy-five flowering cherry trees and twenty-five single-flowered weeping types from the Yokohama Nursery Company in Japan. To test their hardiness, he plants them on a hillside on his own property in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
1907 (Meiji 40)
The Fairchilds begin to promote Japanese flowering cherry trees as the ideal type of tree to plant along avenues in the Washington area. On September 26, the Chevy Chase Land Company orders 300 Oriental cherry trees for the Chevy Chase area.
1908 (Meiji 41)
Dr. Fairchild gives cherry saplings to children from each District of Columbia school to plant in their schoolyard for the observance of Arbor Day. In closing his Arbor Day lecture, Dr. Fairchild expresses an appeal that the “Speedway” be transformed into a “Field of Cherries.” Eliza Scidmore attends the lecture.
1909 (Meiji 42)
Mrs. Scidmore decides to try to raise the money required to purchase the cherry trees and then donate them to the city. She sends a note outlining her plan to the new first lady, Helen Herron Taft who had lived in Japan and was familiar with the beauty of cherry trees. Two days later the first lady responded:
The White House, Washington
April 7, 1909
Thank you very much for your suggestion about the cherry trees. I have taken the matter up and am promised the trees, but I thought perhaps it would be best to make an avenue of them, extending down to the turn in the road, as the other part is still too rough to do any planting. Of course, they could not reflect in the water, but the effect would be very lovely of the long avenue. Let me know what you think about this.
Helen H. Taft
On April 8, Dr. Jokichi Takamine (高峰 譲吉, 1854–1922), the Japanese chemist who discovered adrenaline and takadiastase, is in Washington with Japanese consul general to New York Kokichi Mizuno (水野幸吉, 1873－1914). Told about the Japanese cherry trees, Takamine asks if Mrs. Taft would accept a donation of an additional 2,000 trees. Dr. Takamine and Mr. Mizuno meet with the first lady, who accepts the offer.
1910 (Meiji 43)
On January 6, the 2,000 trees arrive in Washington, D.C. On January 19, an inspection team from the Department of Agriculture discovers that the trees are diseased, infested with insects and nematodes. The department concludes that the trees must be destroyed. President William Howard Taft grants his consent to burn the trees on January 28.
The probable diplomatic setback is alleviated by letters from the Secretary of State to the Japanese Ambassador expressing the deep regret of all concerned. Dr. Takamine and the Mayor of Tokyo, Yukio Ozaki, meet the distressing news with determination and good will.
Dr. Takamine again donates the money for the trees, their number now increased to 3,020. The scions for these trees are taken from the famous collection along the bank of the Arakawa River in Adachi Ward, Tokyo, and grafted onto specially selected understock produced in Itami, Hyogo Prefecture.
1912 (Meiji 45)
On March 26, 3,020 cherry trees arrive in Washington, D.C.
Many thanks to the US National Park Service for most of the above information.