Washington’s century-old cherry trees: wizened but still able to bust a bloom

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Chris Roddick as chief botanist at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in New York; he is the chief arborist. The article also should have made clear that although the oldest Yoshino cherry tree at the Brooklyn garden is 29 years old, it has another variety of cherry tree that is 91 years old. This version has been corrected.

March 11, 2012

In human years, they are 156 years old. And it shows.

You’ll seldom find a more gnarled, knobbed or bent-over bunch of geezer trees than these ancient Yoshino cherries lining a short stretch of the Tidal Basin. It’s an orchard of gnomes and trolls, a grove of exhausted old- timers boasting all the upright rigor of melted candles.

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.

“If this was not one of the 100-year-old cherry trees, you probably wouldn’t leave it standing,” Shupe said on a crisp March morning by the Tidal Basin. He’s looking at a tree straight from the Arboretum of Dr. Seuss, a squat, wrinkled stump with a single branch arching from its top. “But you can see this limb is still going to produce a lot of flowers. As long as it’s going to do what it’s supposed to do and it’s not a safety risk, you leave it.”


It’s been an eventful century for the young saplings that made the ocean voyage from Yokohama. They outlasted professional baseball and streetcars in Washington; now they’ve lived to see baseball return, and another year will see streetcars come back. The trees have endured droughts and hurricanes and stood by during marches for peace and memorials to war, including the big one with the nation that donated them. (After four of the trees were mysteriously cut down three days after Pearl Harbor, officials started referring to the cherry trees as “Oriental” instead of “Japanese.”)

When they were planted, the southwest quarter of the Mall was mostly a scrubby, empty wasteland only recently filled in with muck dredged from the Potomac. (Because there were some early fatalities among the first cherry trees and few detailed records were kept, some of the oldest-
looking trees might actually be replacements planted two or three years later, the Park Service said.)

The Mall was largely a federal work yard. There were fish hatcheries near the Washington Monument and plant nurseries to supply boxwoods and rhododendrons for government office buildings.

But the cherry trees inspired a new vision for the Mall, one more landscaped and recreational. By the 1920s, the trees had matured and their spectacular annual bloom, coinciding with the beginning of the automobile age, launched an enduring tourist extravaganza. The annual National Cherry Blossom Festival now brings in $126 million a year on average.

By the 1930s, there were sailboats and swimmers in the Tidal Basin and ballparks by the river. The trees were beloved. When the Jefferson Memorial was proposed, irate garden club members chained themselves to cherry trees to protest plans to cut hundreds of them. Officials “ended up altering the landscaping plan to save as many as possible,” said Kay Fanning, a historian with the Fine Arts Commission.

The Kutz Bridge was built across the basin’s northern lobe. Railroad and highway and Metro bridges were thrown across the Potomac. Traffic climbed and visitation soared, with lunchtime joggers, weekend strollers, countless Keds and Birkenstocks and Florsheims pounding the soil, loving these trees.

The few dozen originals survived it all. From cuttings taken from the banks of Tokyo’s Arakawa River all the way into the heart of Washington — and the hearts of Washingtonians — not a bad century at all.

“To live for a 100 years in that environment is significant,” said Margaret Pooler, a geneticist at the U.S. National Arboretum. She has taken cuttings from the originals, and clones of the trees are among the 100 to 150 replacement cherries planted around the Mall each year.

Some of the clones have been sent back to Japan. The gift has become an exchange, and there are now Washington cherry trees growing in Tokyo.

“Especially as I get older, I appreciate them,” Pooler said. “They get wider and kind of gnarly, but they’re essentially still living the life of a 20-year-old. They’re lucky that way.”

And in a couple of weeks (on or about March 24, according to the official blossom forecast), these creaky centenarians will turn again into flirty youths, gathering their strength to puff out a gloriously vain headdress of pink and white in the instinctive (and, because they are sterile hybrids, fruitless) quest to get a little cross-pollination going.

One tree is not going to make the pollen party. As Shupe’s crew gives the 100-year-old originals a haircut, lopping off any bud-less branches with expert flicks of towering pole saws, another group of workers is grinding up a dead tree over by the King Memorial.

It was planted last fall. The whippersnapper.

Steve Hendrix came to The Post more than ten years ago from the world of magazine freelancing and has written for just about every page of the paper: Travel, Style, the Magazine, Book World, Foreign, National and, most recently, the Metro section’s Enterprise Team.
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