Century-Old Mystery Blooms In Grove of D.C. Cherry Trees
Worker Wonders Whether Stand Is Part of 1910 Gift Crop

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.

Upon further inspection, experts also noticed that the trees were infested with insects and disease. Fearing that those conditions could worsen, the government ordered the trees burned. The U.S. apologized to Japan, and the trees, along with their wrapping and bamboo packing canes, were gathered Jan. 28 in giant campfire-like pyres and set ablaze.

Except for a few.

The next day, a newspaper article said that about a dozen trees had been saved for study and planted in "an experimental plot." DeFeo said he thinks that the plot belonged to the Bureau of Plant Industry and that about 24 trees might have been spared.

"We know that the Bureau of Plant Industry had this property," DeFeo said yesterday, as he stood near the grove in East Potomac Park.

Plus, he said, the trees in the grove are large for cherry trees and gnarled, indicating that they are old. "Look at this tree," he said of one. "Go find a bigger tree anywhere. Go look around the Tidal Basin. You won't find trees this big. There's nothing that comes close." The trees were also sending down roots from inside their rotting trunks. "This tree is rooting inside itself, it's so old," he said. "They do this as they get really, really, really old."

Another major clue is the stubby Y shape of many of the trees, DeFeo said, a suggestion that the trees were once pruned.

Also, the trees have been planted in rows, but relatively far apart. "If this were a nursery . . . you wouldn't plant these this far apart," he said. "You would plant them far apart if you were worried about insects and diseases. You'd want to isolate each tree."

It's baffling, he said yesterday, as the blossoms stood in peak condition against the gloomy sky. Are these 1910 trees? Or something else?

"I want somebody to come and tell me what they are," he said. "So far, no takers."

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