George Washington cut down the cherry tree, as everyone knows, and confessed to it, and this is an example of his great truthfulness. Many gardeners would cite it also as an example of Gen. Washington's good sense, since the cherry is a naughty tree in the small garden, making dense shade and (with ravenous roots) robbing every other plant for yards around.
But where there's space -- as at the Tidal Basin and Potomac Park -- nothing is finer than an unchopped cherry, the floral signature of this capital.
Few recall it now, but the first 2,000 cherry trees -- gifts from Japan -- were burned upon arrival by order of the Department of Agriculture, whose bug people found the trees terribly full of vermin.
But it was a sticky and delicate business, since for two years everybody in Washington had been steamed up by the announcement that the city of Tokyo was going to give this capital 2,000 flowering cherries. The president's wife, Mrs. Taft, was all revved up to plant the first one.
How often in life it's a case of back to the drawing board.
Fortnuately, the Japanese were not insulted by the burning of their gift trees, but set to work to propagate a new batch, sending 3,000 of them the second try. They arrived the winter of 1912, and Mrs. Taft lost not a single day planting the first, while the wife of the Japanese ambassador, Viscountess Iwa Chinda, planted the second (both of these trees continue to grow and flower).
So far so good. But during the 70 years since then, men have foolishly forgotten that the first order of business is the maintenance and propagation of flowering cherries, and instead have fooled around with depressions, world ward, zub, zub, zub, and much has been lost.
In our own capital, as Roland M. Jefferson, botanist, was saying just this past week, we have lost perhaps half the varieties of Japanese cherries that once graced our gardens and parks.
And in Japan, while it would not be true to say they've run out of cherries utterly, the cherry picture could be much better. Japan was the original home of many varieties that no longer exist in Japan. Some that are missing in Japan are now still to be found in America.
Takao Watanabe, representing the Tokyo parks area from which our Tidal Basin trees originally came, has been in Washington to collect twigs from our cherrires to take back to Japan. From them new trees will be propagated for the Tokyo park.
"Surely you still have Yoshino cherries in Japan and don't need to get propagating wood from Washington?" he was asked.
Indeed they do have plenty of Yoshino cherries. But they wanted ones propagated from our trees, which came from Mr. Watanabe's very park.
Beyond that, and in addition to the kinds of cherries near the Tidal Basin, Mr. Watanabe and his party want to explore acquiring other kinds of cherry trees, that no longer can be found in Japan. (Propagating wood of additional sorts will be shipped to Tokyo).
Roland Jefferson, botanist at the National Arboretum, is no end pleased by the Japanese interest, since it fits so perfectly with his own.He has already written 700 botanical gardens and other institutions throughout the world to see precisely what they have in the way of Japanese cherries. It can happen, for example, that a private gardener in Italy might import 40 varieties of cherry from Japan in 1900, and that some of these may still be flourishing, even though some of those varieties might now be lost to cultivation in Japan.
Jefferson is compiling, in other words, what he hopes will be a definite list of all Japanese cherries now alive in the world. It's not so easy as you might think. Synonyms abound. Japanese names are commonly changed when the trees are grown elsewhere, and many names may be in circulation for the same tree. On the other hand, a popular name (like "Akebono," meaning "dawn,") may be applied to trees distinctly different from one another.
But ultimately the names and sources will be straightened out (as they have been for roses and camelias, say) and then budwood for propagation can be sent to build up collections wherever desired.
During World War II, you might suspect Japanese cherries had a hard time in Japan. Watanabe kept mentioning "pollution" as a cause of death among cherries in Tokyo, but also said many cherries were chopped down for firewood.
Civilization may be summarized in a nutshell: It is the state of affairs in which men fidget about the preservation and increase of all known forms of ornamental flowering cherries, instead of chopping them down to put in fireplaces for the sake of mere survival.
One elegant variety of cherry, which everyone knows merely as "Mikuruma-gaeshi," and which regretfully no longer grows near the Tidal Basin, may be translated literally as "The Emperor's Carriage Returns." Once an emperor was riding in his carriage and shot past a fine specimen of this variety in flower. He stopped his driver and asked him to go back, for a second and better look at the lovely brownish-green leaves and pink flowers fading to white, and yet a little rim of pink at the edge. Hence the name.
Of the 13 kinds of cherry first planted near the Tidal Basin, only the Tokyo cherry, which usually blooms about April 4, and the double pink powder-puff kind called "Kwanzan" still grow there. The esthetic effect may be all the better for that, leaving a larger collection of varieties to the National Arboretum.
Roland Jefferson has long been a leading scholar of the crabapple (Malus) and his handbook on crabapples in cultivation has been long awaited. Here he is branching off into cherries. He says he is faithful to crabs, all the same, but any gardener observing him carrying on about cherries with the Japanese delegation is probably not holding his breath any longer for the handbook on crabs.