I doubt that anyone would disagree that the best time to visit Washington D.C. is when the Japanese cherry trees are in bloom. It is said that the cherry blossoms are awakened in spring by the ‘maiden who causes trees to bloom’ or by fairies who visit the emperor at the Palace of Yoshino in the moonlight. This year (2012) is the centennial celebration of the 1912 gift of around 3,000 cherry trees from the city of Tokyo. To mark this event the Library has opened a special exhibit called: Sakura: Cherry Blossoms as Living Symbols of Friendship in the Graphic Arts Galleries on the ground floor of the Thomas Jefferson Building.
Cherry, along with almond, peach, apricot, nectarine and plum trees belong to the genus Prunus L and are part of the rose family- Rosacea. This family of plants, which are ornamental (decoration) and economical (edible stone fruits); include over 100 genera and more than 2,000 species. The Japanese cherry tree is an ornamental tree, which means it’s grown as a decorative plant for its attractive appearance. Generally speaking, it blooms the first few days in April, however, it can bloom as early as mid-March or as late as mid-April. It is important to note that the Japanese cherry trees are different from the native North American species of deciduous cherry trees (Prunus serotina– black cherry, Prunus virginia- choke cherry, Prunus carolina– Carolina-laurel cherry), which also provide beautiful flowers in the spring.
The reverence for the Japanese flowering cherry trees (also known as sakura) originated with Japan’s emperor and his court in the 5th century A.D. By the 19th century there were over 1,000 sakura of 80 different selections planted in Kyoto, Japan, and in the beginning of the 20th century there were more than 130 cultivated selections produced.
Coming to America
Much of what we know about the introduction of the Japanese flowering cherry tree in Washington D.C. comes from the research of Roland M. Jefferson and Alan E. Fusonie which was published in the seminal work – The Japanese Flowering Cherry Trees of Washington D.C. (1977) ( a digital copy of this work is available from the National Agricultural Library). According to this work, Japanese cherry trees began to appear in U.S. nursery catalogs in the mid 19th century. In the Descriptive Catalogue of Fruits, Ornamental Trees, Flowering Shrubs and Plants by Ellwanger and Barry Co. (Rochester, New York, 1846), the weeping cherry was sold under the name Cerasus pendula and in the Catalogue of Fruits and Ornamental Trees, Shrubs, Vines, and Roses, Greenhouse and Stove Plants by Parson and Co. (Flushing, New York, 1852), the double flowering cherry was sold as Cerasus pendula plena.
The Library of Congress does not collect nursery catalogs; we defer to the collections of the National Agricultural Library and its Henry G. Gilbert Nursery and Seed Trade Catalog collection. However, the Library of Congress has a great collection of nursery, horticulture, and gardening trade journals such as the American Nurseryman, National Nurseryman, and Meehan’s Monthly (Meehan’s Garden Bulletin). In the December 1893 issue of the National Nurseryman there is a photo-engraving and brief article of the Japan Weeping Rose-Flowered Cherry (see image at left).
The Late 19th and early 20th century saw an increase in popularity of using foreign plants in the U.S. , including the Japanese cherry tree. In 1862, George Roger Hall, noted as one of the first to introduce Japanese cherry trees into the U.S, brought in 15 varieties, and in 1876 Dr. William S. Clark began to introduce wild species of Prunus sargentii (sargent cherry) into the United States. In response to the desire for foreign plants by U.S. citizens, the USDA created the Section for Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction. This office was run by renowed plant explorer David Fairchild, who was one of the key players in beautifying Washington, D.C. with Japanese cherry trees. By 1903, Fairchild and his friend Barbour Lathrop introduced 30 named varieties of Japanese cherry trees into the United States and in the following years Fairchild ordered more trees from the Yokohama Nursery in Japan for his Chevy Chase, Maryland home (commonly known as In the Woods). Here is a 1913 catalog from the Yokohama Nursery.
Fairchild’s obsession to cover Washington, D.C. in a “field of cherries” picked up momentum. In 1908 he successfully organized an Arbor Day ceremony in which students from D.C. public schools planted Japanese cherry trees on school grounds and parks . At the same time Fairchild joined Eliza Scidmore, noted expert on Japanese subjects, in the campaign to plant cherry trees along the newly constructed Potomac Park (aka Speedway).
Living Symbols of Friendship, the Gift from Tokyo 1909 and 1912
Possibly fueled by Fairchild and Scidmore’s “field of cherries” project, First Lady Helen Harron Taft also became interested in beautifying Potomac Park. This seems to be the boost that Fairchild and Scidmore needed, because in 1909 the mayor of Tokyo donated 2,000 trees to Washington, D.C. which were shipped from Japan on October 29, 1909. The trees arrived in Seattle on December 10 and in Washington on January 6, 1910. Upon inspection, the trees were found to be infested with pests and various diseases. Assistant Chief of the USDA’s Bureau of Entomology Charles Marlett, who strongly supported the necessity for plant quarantine legislation, ordered the lot to be burned.
But this did not sway Tokyo’s Mayor Yukio Ozaki who, in 1912, shipped a second batch of 6,000 trees to the United States- around half went to New York City and the other half to Washington, D.C. Twelve selections of flowering cherries were included, mostly of the scented white or pale pink single blossom Prunus x yedoensis ( Somei- Yoshino), but the selections also included Prunus serrulata (Kwan-zan, also known as Kanzan or Sekiyama), a deep-pink double blossom that blooms two weeks later than Yoshino. This time precautionary measures were taken to ward off pests and disease, including the supervised cultivation and fumigation of the new trees. Read more about Charles Marlett and the Plant Quarantine Act of 1912 from the Law Library’s blog post Cherry Blossoms, Insects and Inspections.
This second shipment proved to be a success with every tree passing inspection. On March 27, 1912 the first of these trees was planted at the Tidal Basin by First Lady Helen Herron Taft and Viscountess Iwa Chinda (wife of the Japanese ambassador). These two trees located in the northwest side of the Tidal Basin are still alive today. In addition to the Tidal Basin plantings, the trees were also planted along Riverside Dr., the White House, Rock Creek Park, and a nursery on 17th and B St.
Unfortunately, cherry trees do not live forever. Regrettably, many of the Yoshino trees died in the first few years and were replaced by the variety called Akebono, which is an American form of the Japanese tree propagated in a San Jose, California nursery. In the past few decades, scientists from the U.S. National Arboretum have taken steps to replace the dying trees with plants from the 1912 original clippings (See Cherry Blossoms: Restoring a National Treasure published in Agricultural Research, April 1999.)
Because of overcrowding, some of the original plantings were transplanted to other D.C. landmarks, such as the U.S. Capitol grounds, U.S. Naval Observatory, and even the Library of Congress. In fact, the Library has two documented original 1912 Yoshino trees- one is held up by a crutch near the corner of Independence Ave and 2nd st, SE and the other is at the corner of 2nd and East Capitol Streets.
In 1978, Roland Jefferson noted that only 28% of the original 1912 plantings were left and of these nearly all except Yoshino and Kwanzan have disappeared. Today, the National Park Service estimates that around 100 Yoshino trees from the original 1912 plantings are still alive.
If you would like to learn more, take a look our Cherry Blossom Selected Internet Resources Guide.