Smothered With Love

Visitors read a plaque commemorating the first cherry trees, from 1912, in front of one first lady Helen H. Taft planted. The hordes who come to the District annually to see the blossoms endanger the trees by trampling the dirt around them, which suffocates the roots, and by stealing branches.
Visitors read a plaque commemorating the first cherry trees, from 1912, in front of one first lady Helen H. Taft planted. The hordes who come to the District annually to see the blossoms endanger the trees by trampling the dirt around them, which suffocates the roots, and by stealing branches. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The aged trees are bent and misshapen, and cut back and decayed, and so withered in places you can see right through them.

Moss grows on their gnarled roots. Starlings nest in the knotholes and spiders under the bark. If you tap on the gray wood, you can hear in places that it is hollow.

The National Park Service calls them "witnesses" -- the eldest of the blossoming Japanese cherry trees -- because some probably date to the original planting in spring 1912.

As the National Cherry Blossom Festival has grown in popularity, Park Service officials have become increasingly concerned about the well-being of their most frail and elderly "cherries."

Arrayed along the Tidal Basin south of the Washington Monument, the oldest trees -- about 125 of the original 3,000 remain -- have survived drought, flood, the beaver scare of 1999, scale infestation and, perhaps the worst affliction of all, lavish public attention.

"The cherries have their insect and disease associates, like all trees," said Robert DeFeo, the Park Service's chief horticulturalist. "But there's nothing that threatens or even comes close to threatening the trees like people."

Two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, four of the original cherry trees were sawed down by vandals angry at the Japanese, according to news reports of the time. Branches have been snapped off for souvenirs by generations of tourists, the Park Service said. And the soil around the roots has suffered decades of suffocating "compaction" from millions of visitors' feet.

Dogs, car exhaust and trash are also threats. Yet some of the old trees, which officials said are probably all almond-scented Yoshinos, have survived well beyond the typical 50-year life span, DeFeo said.

Their white five-petal blossoms are just as striking and delicate today as those of younger trees, and DeFeo vows that the oldsters will live on "as long as I can keep them safe."

"They may outlive me," he said.

One key to their longevity, DeFeo said, has been that many are in less-traveled sections of the Tidal Basin. The Park Service asked that their precise locations not be described.

The Tidal Basin, East Potomac Park and Washington Monument grounds have about 3,800 cherry trees, most of them replacements, the Park Service said.


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