With the melting of the late March snow this past week, the earliest of Washington’s cherry blossoms began to stir. The city has been celebrating the Japanese flowering cherry tree for 102 years. The blooming of almost 4,000 trees around the Tidal Basin, East Potomac Park and the Washington Monument symbolizes the long-awaited spring, drawing devotees from around the world. Yet the blossoms bloom only briefly. Let’s look at some illusive notions about a short-lived flower that’s hard to pin down.
1. The idea of planting Washington’s cherry trees came from Japan.
The Japanese government embraced the idea of a gift of cherry trees as an act of bilateral friendship, but it was a handful of Americans who first promoted their mass planting in the District, notably author and adventurer Eliza Scidmore and a Department of Agriculture plant explorer named David Fairchild.
Fairchild introduced thousands of economic and ornamental plants to the United States during his career, including varieties of the Japanese cherry. On a visit to Japan in 1902, he was taken by the way the cherry tree was used to line city avenues. When he and his wife settled in Chevy Chase in 1906, they planted 100 trees on their estate. Fairchild enthusiastically promoted their wider use. Scidmore, in writing about the Japanese hanami, or celebration of the blossoms, had already whetted the appetite in the United States for the trees. Their pleas were taken up by first lady Helen Taft, who was looking for ways to beautify Potomac Park.
An initial planting of double-flowering cherry trees led to the offer of a major donation of trees by the city of Tokyo. The popular Yoshino cherry, with its creamy, delicate blooms and spreading canopy, is also called the Tokyo cherry.
2. Visitors still enjoy the original trees.
The cherry trees that arrived in Washington caused a lot of trouble. The batch of 2,000 trees from Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki was rejected by Agriculture Department scientists when it arrived in the winter of 1910. The trees — large, heavily root-pruned and probably severely stressed — were badly infected with pests and diseases that could spread and become a nightmare for fruit growers in the United States. After President William Howard Taft gave his permission, the trees were burned.
Fortunately, Ozaki took the episode in stride and arranged to send 3,000 more trees to Washington for spring planting in 1912. These trees were younger and healthier, and had been thoroughly fumigated. They passed muster.
But like their blossoms, most cherry trees are naturally short-lived. That any of the originals have survived is because of the vigilant care of National Park Service crews. Only a few dozen are still around, typically gnarled and misshapen specimens near the stone Japanese Lantern on the north side of the Tidal Basin.
3. The cherry trees grown around the Jefferson Memorial were a favorite of Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson planted as many as 48 fruiting cherry trees for Monticello’s kitchen. He noted that one beloved variety, Carnation, was “so superior to all others that no other deserves the name of cherry.” He also enjoyed their ornamental effect in bloom.
But the sage of Monticello is unlikely to have been familiar with the Japanese cherry trees prized for their blossoms, not their fruit. These did not come to the attention of Western botanists until the 1830s in books and were not exported to America until Japan ended a period of isolationism in the 1850s. The Jefferson Memorial was dedicated in 1943, 31 years after the initial planting — and, of course, more than a century after Jefferson’s death. Local residents protested the destruction of some of the trees to make way for the memorial.
4. In Japanese culture, the blooms symbolize the fleeting nature of life.
The ephemeral nature of the blossoms is reflected in the melodramatic, 11th-century Japanese fable “The Tale of Genji.” Ten centuries later, the flowers’ existential heft is still touted by the National Park Service. “The brief duration of their brilliant blossoms symbolize the brevity of life for the people of Japan,” according to its Web site.
But the blossoms have taken on many different and often contradictory meanings in Japanese life, according to Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, a professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin and the author of “Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms: The Militarization of Aesthetics in Japanese History.” Originally farmers revered the cherry blossoms, believing that they were visited by deities who guaranteed a rich rice harvest. In Kyoto in the 8th century, the emperor and his court held an annual “feast of the flower,” first venerating plum blossoms, then focusing on cherry blossoms for their more distinctive Japanese character.
Later, the cherry blossoms came to symbolize geishas’ femininity and the power of warriors. Aristocrats strolled among the blossoms, musicians serenaded the trees, poets used them for inspiration. And during Japan’s militarization in the 20th century, the petals stood for fallen soldiers as well as Kamikaze pilots.
Whatever their meaning, the ephemeral blooms make it hard to plan the festival. “If you have rain or wind,” Ohnuki-Tierney said, “it goes away in two or three days.” Because it is so tricky to predict the timing of the blooms, a celebration that began as a modest three-day event in the 1930s will last this year from March 20 to April 13.
5. If the Tidal Basin were planted today, we wouldn’t use Japanese cherry trees.
A strong movement for native plants has developed within state and federal natural-resource agencies and environmental groups, which point to problems caused by nonnatives that become invasive. Many garden plants from East Asia, first welcomed enthusiastically by horticulturists, have turned out to be rampant in the wild and detrimental to native flora and fauna. Among the culprits are the multiflora rose, the Japanese barberry, the porcelain-berry, the Japanese and Chinese wisterias, and the Japanese honeysuckle. And not all of Fairchild’s introductions turned out to be that great. He also advocated a wonderful new forage crop from the Land of the Rising Sun: kudzu, known as “the vine that ate the South.”
Luckily for Washingtonians, Japanese flowering cherries behave themselves. Double-flowering varieties such as Kwanzan are sterile, and the single-flowering Yoshino and Akebono might produce one lonely seed in a small fruit of interest only to birds. These imported trees won’t kill native species. And according to Teresa Durkin, senior project manager of the Trust for the National Mall, the cherry trees, though exotic, are not invasive and could still be planted.
“The cherry trees are a well-respected example of our friendship with the nation of Japan,” Durkin said. “They are really cherished.”