Yokohama’s 1903 catalogue included a sweet and prescient if ungrammatical reference to the newly offered Yoshino cherry: “No park without this tree seems not perfect.”
This was a view shared by David Fairchild, an esteemed plant explorer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture who was in Japan the previous year and was struck by the beauty of the trees. He shipped about 30 varieties home for the department and in 1905 ordered 100 trees for his estate in Chevy Chase.
Their fame spread, and first lady Helen Taft was convinced they were the plant to use in her plan to beautify Potomac Park. The first gift of trees from Japan, some 2,000, arrived in 1910, but they were sickly and bug-infested and had to be burned. A healthier batch of 3,020 arrived in spring 1912. (The spread of Japanese flora has not been without its problems, particularly with plants that became invasive: among them, Japanese honeysuckle, the paulownia tree and kudzu.)
In 1914 and 1915, Ernest Wilson brought back more flowering cherry trees, conifers and 50 varieties of Kurume azaleas that would transform the American garden.
Collectors returned to Japan after World War II. On the remote southern island of Yakushima, John Creech, collecting jointly for the National Arboretum and Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa., found a species of crape myrtle named Lagerstroemia fauriei. This small tree had beautiful plant architecture, striking cinnamon bark and a resistance to powdery mildew. Hybridizer Donald Egolf used it to create a series of varieties in widespread use. The most common, almost to the point of ubiquity, is the Natchez cultivar.
I called the late Egolf’s successor at the federal Agricultural Research Service, Margaret Pooler, and asked her to show me what Japanese plants she was using in her breeding programs. At the National Arboretum in Northeast Washington, she led me into an unheated greenhouse where cherry trees had been coaxed into early bloom. Growing in large pots, their branches were covered in large, bell-like blossoms of the deepest magenta.
Since the current cherry breeding program began in the 1980s, she has introduced two varieties and is about to release a third. All three are the cherry tree versions of “American Idol” winners: Hundreds of competitors have been dropped along the way. It can take 20 years between making a cross and introducing a plant to the nursery trade.
What is Pooler looking for? Cherry trees that are disease-resistant, happy in poor soil, novel in size and flower color, and easy for nurseries to grow.
Around the Tidal Basin, Joe Krakora and I see perfection. Pooler sees possibilities. She has 20 cherry species and 400 hybrids growing at the arboretum, all ready to lend their genes to breeding programs that will continue for decades to come. Such is the bounty of Japan.
“I’m building on the work of Don Egolf, and people are going to be building on the work I did,” she said.
If Asa Gray were to return today, he would see in virtually every garden a reunion of his plants long separated but now together again, generating that joyful space beyond the space.
“We have Chinese plants and European plants,” said Forrest, of the New York Botanical Garden, “but if you subtracted any geographic source, none would be so missed by American gardeners as Japanese plants.”
Adrian Higgins is a Washington Post staff writer. To comment on this story, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.