D.C. In Bloom: The Story of Our Nation’s Cherry Trees

Having lived in Washington, D.C. for decades, I’ve come to mark spring by the blooming of the cherry trees around the Tidal Basin. And due to this long-lived tradition, I am an avid observer of the weather. Some years, I’ve donned a heavy jacket to see the flowers. Other times, I’ve worn shorts. Still other years, fickle spring winds have spelled the early demise of the delicate pink blossoms.

To avoid the crowds, we always arrive early on the National Mall. And by early, I mean right after sunrise. By 8:00 am, there are usually thousands of people already snapping pictures under the fluffy pink canopy. It is estimated that more than 1,500,000 visitors descend on the National Mall each year to take in the magnificent blossoms.

Eliza Scidmore’s Cherry Tree Obsession

Washington D.C.’s cherry trees originated as a gift of friendship from Japan to the American people in the early 1900’s. But long before that, they had already caught the eye of American journalist and world traveler Eliza Scidmore. In 1885, she visited Japan and was awestruck by the spectacular trees. She wrote:

Its short-lived glory makes it all the more keen and enjoying.

Eliza Scidmore/Photo: nps.gov

Back in D.C., the Army Corp of Engineers was engaged in a reclamation project creating new land out of 720 acres of mud flats around what would become the Tidal Basin. As much of the landscape was up for grabs, Scidmore appealed to federal officials to plant some of the cherry trees she had seen in Tokyo. But for years she was rebuffed by successive superintendents of public lands who were concerned that police would be needed “night and day” to keep people from stealing fruit.

(Upon learning that the trees were strictly ornamental, they saw no reason at all to plant them.)

Yet, Scidmore wasn’t one to give up easily. She wrote to First Lady Helen Taft, who took up the matter. Recognizing that the cherry blossoms could serve as a bridge between the two cultures, Mrs. Taft offered to donate 200 cherry trees to the Tidal Basin and asked the Mayor of Tokyo to do the same. Japan did her one better. In January 1910, a gift of 2000 trees arrived in Washington D.C. to be planted along the banks of the Potomac.

Unfortunately these trees were infested with insects and had to be subsequently destroyed.

A Blossoming Friendship

Two years later, the Japanese sent a second gift, this time of 3,020 trees raised under the care of ‘Scientific Experts’. The shipment arrived in the United States on March 1912. Contained within were saplings of 12 varieties cultivated specifically for their superior stock. As soon as they arrived on the West Coast, the trees were loaded onto insulated freight cars and shipped to Washington, D.C.

Below is the U.S. National Park Service’s breakdown of the trees by species:

On March 27, 1912, First Lady Helen Taft and the Viscountess China, wife of the Japanese ambassador, planted two cherry trees on the northern bank of the Tidal Basin. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the First Lady presented a gift of one dozen roses to Viscountess Chinda, thereby inaugurating the first unofficial Cherry Blossom Festival.

These two trees still survive near the John Paul Jones Memorial located at the intersection of 17th Street and Independence Avenue. At the base of the trees is a bronze plaque commemorating the occasion. 

According to the National Park Service, some news articles indicate that a few of the original 1910 trees may be hidden somewhere in the city. The United States Botanic Garden (USBG) believes they might be at Haines Point, where they have discovered a group of old Yoshino trees whose genetic makeup does not match the second gift of trees. Planted in clear rows about 50 feet apart, the cherry trees still bloom faithfully every spring. 

The Cherry Tree Rebellion

By 1938, people had fallen in love with the cherry trees that wrapped D.C.’s Tidal Basin each spring in a blanket of fluffy pink blossoms. At the same time, plans were underway for the construction of a large Roman-style memorial to be built on the south side of the Basin. Many people, however, felt the Jefferson Memorial would have a negative effect on viewing the trees along with the festival. 

In the spring, the National Park Service held a press conference to announce the impending removal of 600 trees for the construction, of which 328 were cherries. This ‘ruthless butchering’ led to a ‘Cherry Tree Rebellion’ during which a group of women symbolically chained themselves to the trees. President Franklin Roosevelt dismissed their actions as ‘flim flam’, saying

We will move the lady and the tree and transplant them to another place. 

But in the end, no ladies were moved and the Memorial was slightly downsized. According to the National Park Service, only 88 of D.C.’s cherry trees were destroyed and 83 were transplanted .

The National Cherry Blossom Festival

Decades later, the Washington, D.C. cherry blossoms are now classified as ‘Cultural Icons’; the same category as the national monuments. A dedicated crew takes care of them, following a schedule of early pruning in February and March. Currently, they are addressing soil compaction caused by the huge number of visitors. Referred to as ‘wood chip therapy,’ their work involves creating a barrier between feet and soil to allow water and nutrients to reach the trees’ roots. In some areas, they are also installing fencing.

According to the National Park Service, peak bloom date is when 70% of the blossoms are in full bloom. On average, this usually occurs sometime between March 15 and March 18, depending on climate. Beginning in October, the National Park Service monitors the five stages of bloom starting with the appearance of the first green bud. The fifth and most vulnerable stage, known as ‘Puppy Blossoms’, is when the blooms are most susceptible to weather.

To determine the exact date of the Festival, however, the Park Service looks to an old Yoshino cherry tree, believed to be part of the original 1912 gift. Known as the Indicator Tree,  it typically blooms 7 to 10 days before the others. The tree is located just east of the Jefferson Memorial.

According to the Indicator Tree, this year’s Cherry Blossom Festival will officially begin on March 25. Come early!

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About carole funger

I'm a landscape designer and Maryland Master Gardener living in the Washington, DC area. I blog about new trends in horticulture, inspiring gardens to visit and the latest tips and ideas for how to nurture your own beautiful garden. Every garden tells a story. What's yours?