And yet, stand back. The “originals” are about to bust a bloom. For the 100th spring in a row, it’s showtime for the survivors of the first 3,000 Japanese cherry trees planted here a century ago this month.
The number of alums from the Class of 1912 is down to a few dozen, most of them bunched in this little forest of the wizened next to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. They are living relics of history’s greatest diplo-botanical goodwill gesture, and they’ve borne a century of witness to a transformation they helped to spark: the emergence of Washington as not just a powerful city but a beautiful one.
“The first cherry trees helped crystallize an image of what Washington could look like,” said Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and one of the watchdogs of Washington’s core handsomeness. “It’s remarkable that some of the original trees are still with us.”
Remarkable is right. These trees are genuine arboreal oddities, having more than doubled the usual life span of a Yoshino cherry in this country (imagine a few of your neighbors making it into their 150s). And that’s despite growing up in an overheated former swamp where millions of visitors a year come to step on their old roots and swing from their tired branches.
“Usually, getting 50 years from a Yoshino is pretty good,” said Chris Roddick, chief arborist of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden in New York, where the most ancient Yoshino cherry is a trifling 29 years old — though the garden does have another variety that is 91 years old. “They’ve got us beat. They should be proud.”
By “they,” Roddick means the generations of National Park Service tree crews that have nursed the originals decades past their expiration date. They’ve done it with a combination of genetic good luck, twice-yearly prunings (down from thrice in better budget times) and a lot of extra summer watering. Each July, workers set up a temporary pump that draws water from the Tidal Basin to keep these most venerable roots cool and moist through the worst of the summer.
“They may not be the most pampered trees in Washington, but they’re close,” said Robert DeFeo, the Park Service’s chief horticulturalist for the region and manager of the annual cherry-care budget of $1.2 million. “The National Christmas tree might get closer care.”
The current guardian of the ancients is Gilbert Shupe, supervisor of an eight-member crew that cares for all 3,700 cherry trees around the Mall, along with more than 18,000 trees on other National Park properties in Washington.
A second-generation Park Service tree guy, Shupe is both a realist and a romantic when it comes to the originals. When they’re dead, they’re dead, and he doesn’t hesitate to bring in the chipper. But if there is any life in those twisted old limbs, he’ll let them go long after youthful beauty has faded.