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A young girl holding a doll remembers the revelry during a festival beneath blossoming cherry trees on the banks of a river. Woodcut print created between 1850 and 1900. (Fine Prints: Japanese, pre-1915 Collection/Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-jpd-01564)

How Do You Hold the Memory of a Cherry Blossom in Your Hand?

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A cherry blossom may last for only a few days—or a couple of weeks, if we’re lucky—but that’s why we love its beauty, the ephemeral moments that bring us joy and the anticipation for next year’s abundance. And still, we humans want to hang on to that beauty. Artists throughout centuries used their craft to make the charm of cherry blossoms last longer, whether by capturing the blossoms as accurate to life as possible, or expressing their sentiment towards the blooming tree, robust and fragile at the same time.

Now that this year’s National Cherry Blossom Festival has come and gone, we’d like to highlight a literary way to hold on to its memory. Mari Nakahara and Katherine Blood, two curators in the Library’s Prints and Photographs division, are deep appreciators of cherry blossoms (or sakura in Japanese) and the many ways artists have represented them through a variety of media. Mari and Katherine gathered photographs, mementos, watercolor illustrations, and other forms of art into their book “Cherry Blossoms: Sakura Collections from the Library of Congress,” published by Smithsonian Books in partnership with the Library of Congress in 2020. Below are their highlights from the book:

Cherry Blossoms: Sakura Collections from the Library of Congress. Written by Mari Nakahari and Katherine Blood, with forward by Carla D. Hayden.

Mari’s Highlights

Watercolor drawing of a branch of cherry blossom tree with a cluster of white blossoms, some leaves, and light pink buds
Gyoiko. Koukichi Tsunoi. 1921. Watercolor on paper. (Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-57378)

Gyoiko, one of the twelve varieties of the cherry blossoms given to Washington, D.C. from the city of Tokyo in 1912, is lesser-known in comparison with other varieties such as Somei Yoshino or Kwan-zan. It may be because the gift included only twenty Gyoiko trees, and all were planted in a relatively inconspicuous place: the White House grounds. Katherine and I had a rare opportunity to see a full blossom of the Gyoikoat the National Arboretum before the pandemic; we were struck by its beauty of unusual green-ish color with a deep red in center.

Close-up photograph of gyoiko cherry blossoms, which have green edges and a deep red middle
Mari’s favorite flower, in real life! Gyoiko, taken at the National Arboretum on April 15, 2019. Image courtesy of Mari Nakahara, photographer
Photograph image of a woman in a black jacket and white shoes reaching up with her camera to take a close up photo of blossoms on a gyoiko cherry tree
On the other side of the lens: Mari Nakahara takes close-up photographs of gyoiko at the National Arboretum on April 15, 2019. Image courtesy of Katherine Blood, photographer 

Friends who take photos of each other are wonderful friends indeed!

Black and white cover of a magazine surrounded by red border. A young woman with a sash and gloves is smiling in front of a wheel of fortune.
Front cover of Cherry Blossom Festival program shows 1951 festival queen Maldi Taris pointing to a wheel of fortune. National Conference of State Societies, 1948-2008, 60th anniversary. Color offset lithograph. (Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-57231)

This 2008 National Cherry Blossom Princess Program brochure, which celebrates the 60th anniversary of the Program, shows a key factor of how a new queen is chosen every year, which many people wonder—it’s simply the random spin of a big wheel that bears the names of all the US states and territories. Read more about the ongoing Cherry Blossom Princess Program run by the nonprofit National Conference of State Societies here.

Katherine’s Highlights

A woodblock print features mostly blue colors. Depicted are a few people in traditional Japanese clothing going back and forth on a path along a body of water as they admire the sakura trees in bloom.
Sumida tsutsumi hanami no zu (Viewing cherry blossoms along the Sumida River), from the series Toto meisho (Famous views in the eastern capital), between 1848 and 1854. Hiroshige Ando. Woodcut. Print shows sightseers walking along pathway viewing cherry blossoms on the bank of the Sumida River. (Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-jpd-00501)

We had the chance to feature a wonderful hanafubuki (cherry blossom blizzard) of Japanese color woodblock prints showing sakura in a variety of contexts from the 18th to 20th century. I love this one, by Hiroshige, showing a festive hanami (flower viewing) scene along the Sumida River during the mid-19th century. It makes me want to join the party with dancing, music, and refreshments being shared among the beautiful blossoms. The waterside trees also remind me fondly of those planted along the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC, and the tradition of posing there for photos with friends and family, as captured in this sweet portrait of a mother and daughter by Leah L. Jones.

A black and white photographs shows a woman holding a toddler among cherry blossoms. The toddler is gently holding a cherry tree branch.
Blossom, portrait of a mother and daughter by photographer Leah L. Jones. 2011. Photograph. Reproduced by permission. (Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-57444)

Mari and Katherine told me it was a joy working with the Library’s Publishing Office on this book—with its combination of history, art history, and natural history, and its special story of diplomacy and friendship. Washingtonians and people who visit from around the world can testify that walking among the blossoms brings an annual, springtime re-activation of shared pleasure, goodwill, and optimism. Celebrating all this in book form—how wonderful is that? They feel a special thrill seeing their book in libraries and bookshops, and colleagues and friends send them “shelfie” snapshots when they encounter them out in the wild. “We get really excited each time!”

“Cherry Blossoms: Sakura Collections from the Library of Congress” on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture gift shop. Image courtesy of Aliza Leventhal.

To continue basking in the world of cherry blossom art, check out:

Tell us your favorite cherry blossom experiences. What do you look forward to the most?

There is an absolutely enormous weeping cherry tree in a yard a few minutes from my place that blooms for maybe five days. I anticipate its first blooms more than all the award shows combined. She’s my personal celebrity!

Comments (4)

  1. It would also be nice to mention Diana Pabst Parsell’s book on Eliza Scidmore (the woman behind the DC cherry blossoms. She is a docent at LOC and her book was published last month by Oxford University press.

  2. Congratulations on your gorgeous book, Mari and Katherine! Can’t wait to see a copy of it!

  3. I blog often and I really appreciate your information. This article has truly peaked my interest.

    I am going to take a note of your blog and keep checking for new details about once a week.
    I opted in for your RSS feed too.

  4. A japanese poet had written: If cherry blossoms lasted longer, we would not love them so tenderly.
    The original writing is much more allegorical, but this is the meaning.

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