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Spring 2013

Urban Jungle

The changing natural world at our doorsteps | Illustration and text by Patterson Clark      

April 2, 2013

Survivors: The capital’s oldest Yoshino cherries?


They might be the oldest of the old-timers, a decrepit crew standing on the golf course near Hains Point. Although their insides are rotten, their limbs are spry, so they can still put on a show. Their performance should peak in early April when the capital's Yoshino cherry trees burst into bloom.

Living more than 100 years is an impressive achievement for a human, but even more so for a tree that normally lives for less than 50 years. Thanks to round-the-calendar care from the National Park Service, the cluster of about 20 Yoshinos may have held their space for 103 years. That's at least two years longer than the Tidal Basin's oldest cherry trees, which were planted with great fanfare in 1912.

The genesis of the golf-course trees is unclear, but they could be the remnants of Japan's first gift of cherry trees to the United States. Those trees arrived in 1910, heavily infested with insects, nematodes and disease. The USDA's Bureau of Plant Industry ordered them burned.

Robert Defeo, National Park Service regional chief horticulturist, discovered evidence that 24 trees were spared and allowed to grow under observation, location unspecified. Wide spacing between the trees on the golf course suggests a quarantine project, which in 1910 would have been on land freshly dredged from the Potomac River, long before it hosted golfers.

Burning infested cherry trees, 1910

1910: Burning the infested cherry trees.
— Image from the National Arboretum

Washington's oldest Yoshino cherry trees?

"If this were a nursery . . . you wouldn't plant these this far apart," Defeo told The Post's Michael E. Ruane in 2009. "You would plant them far apart if you were worried about insects and diseases. You'd want to isolate each tree."

Also supporting Defeo's thesis: DNA from the golf-course trees doesn't match that of any of the trees planted in 1912, of which more than 100 survive. No cherry trees from Japan are known to have been planted on federal land after 1912, until Japan sent another 4,000 trees in 1965. Clues to the history of the golf-course

trees are compiled in HALS No. DC-8, a document released few years ago by the Park Service and the Historic American Landscapes Survey.

Definite proof that the trees are from the 1910 shipment doesn't yet exist, but "the preponderance of evidence supports this conclusion," wrote the paper's author, Jonathan Pliska, a historian of landscape architecture. "If this is indeed the case," he wrote, the golf-course trees are "among the most historically significant trees in the entire United States."

Unless you are a golfer paying greens fees, getting close to the trees will be a challenge. They stand beyond a fence, about 500 feet from the nearest road.

However, they can be seen from the westernmost portion of the East Potomac Golf Course driving range, about 50 feet away.

But don't go wandering onto the course, warns Paul Killebrew, treasurer of the company that manages the property. "You might get hit by a golf ball."

Source: National Park Service