A Century-Old Mystery Blooms in Grove of D.C. Cherry Trees

Visitors and locals enjoy music and good weather at the Jefferson Memorial during the Cherry Blossom Festival on Tuesday.Video by Anna Uhls/washingtonpost.com2009 Cherry Blossom Festival Guide
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 2, 2009

Gray and twisted, the 18 aged cherry trees stand by themselves, their dark trunks set off by crowns of white blossoms, which drifted to the earth yesterday in a raw wind off the Potomac River.

The isolated grove seems like a mystical place, away from the throngs of tourists -- the kind of place where, in a silent moment, you could imagine that the trees might even speak.

That would be great for Rob DeFeo, because he has been wondering for years what the trees are doing there, stuck out in East Potomac Park near Hains Point.

DeFeo, a veteran National Park Service cherry blossom expert, thinks he knows. But he's not sure. "No one can explain how or why these trees are here," he said. "And look at them. They're different."

Might they be the last of the doomed, but legendary, 1910 cherry tree shipment?

If they are, they could be the most ancient of the city's famed "cherries" and the long-rumored survivors of the intentional burning that destroyed the others in that batch.

After the organized fire, a second shipment arrived in Washington in 1912, becoming the foundation of the trees that draw a million visitors each year for the National Cherry Blossom Festival, now in full swing.

"What are these trees?" DeFeo asked of the mystery grove. "Somebody tell me."

The story begins in the early 1900s, with a campaign to bring flowering cherry trees from Japan to help beautify Washington.

After a series of overtures, in August 1909 the Embassy of Japan informed the U.S. government that Tokyo, as a gesture of friendship, wanted to give Washington 2,000 cherry trees.

The trees were shipped to Seattle that December, then to Washington, where they arrived Jan. 6, according to DeFeo and a National Arboretum history of the District's Japanese cherry trees.

After the trees arrived, experts noticed that although they were large, their roots had been severely pruned for shipment, a potential threat to their survival. To save the trees, officials ordered that their branches and trunks be pruned or "topped," DeFeo said, the results of which would become a clue to their possible identity.

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