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Cherry Blossoms, Insects, and Inspections

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This is my third spring in Washington, DC, and therefore my third opportunity to see the cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin.  However, that anniversary is much less of an historical event compared to the fact that today, March 27, 2012, marks the 100th anniversary of the planting of the first trees.  This occasion, and the beauty of the trees, inspired me to do some research on their history (I knew that the trees were a gift from Japan and a symbol of friendship between the U.S. and Japan, but not much more than that).  In doing so, I found an interesting legal connection relating to the trees.

Charles L. Marlatt (Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

The current trees were not actually the first to be gifted by Japan.  On January 6, 1910, a shipment of 2,000 Japanese flowering cherry trees arrived in Washington, DC and were inspected by the Bureau of Entomology of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).  According to the USDA, this Bureau did not at that time have formal authority to inspect private plant introductions – its function was limited to inspecting introductions made by the USDA.  The acting chief of the Bureau, Mr. Charles Marlatt, had been seeking to have a federal plant quarantine law enacted by the Congress, but had been unsuccessful due to opposition from nurserymen.  His decision to inspect the cherry trees was therefore controversial and perhaps even seen as a political ploy.  Even more controversial was his formal report, which found that the shipment was infested with “practically every pest imaginable” and resulted in a recommendation that all the trees be destroyed. Mr. Marlatt’s advice was received by President Taft who, on January 28, 1910, authorized the burning of the entire shipment of trees.  This action was carried out on the grounds of the Washington Monument. According to the USDA

[t]his incident led to passage by the U.S. Congress of the Plant Quarantine Act of 1912, which was the first legal action taken in the United States to prevent the introduction of pests from foreign countries. The Federal Horticultural Board was set up to enforce the act.  Marlatt would be its director for almost 20 years.  This law, and others that followed it, established a network of inspection stations at major ports of entry and gave the federal government authority to organize border quarantines, to inspect all agricultural products, and to restrict entry of any infested goods.  Today, these inspections stations operate under the jurisdiction of USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

Information about these events can also be found on the website of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which states

Agriculture Secretary James Wilson and his staff used this situation to highlight risks [to] American agriculture from imports. Their scientific evidence reinforced the concerns of individual states, 39 of which had already passed legislation, and which had sought a national plant quarantine law as early as 1898. A result was the Plant Quarantine Act of 1912 which went into effect on August 20, 1912. This act established the Federal Horticultural Board and enabled plant quarantines.

Although the burning of the first shipment of trees caused some embarrassment for both the U.S. and Japan, the Secretary of State, Philander Chase Knox, managed to avoid a diplomatic incident and a second shipment of 3,020 trees – which were fumigated prior to being shipped – arrived in Washington, DC on March 26, 1912.  The USDA stated that “no shipment could have been cleaner and freer from insect pests.”  The first two trees were planted on March 27 by First Lady Helen Taft and by Viscountess Chinda, the wife of the Japanese ambassador.  According to the National Park Service

[t]hese two original trees still stand several hundred yards west of the John Paul Jones Memorial, located at the terminus of 17th Street, SW. Situated near the bases of the trees is a large bronze plaque which commemorates the occasion.

The Library of Congress holds a 1917 copy of the Plant Quarantine Act 1912 (7 U.S.C. 151 et seq.), as amended in 1913 and 1917.  This document has been digitized and is available online.  The Law Library also holds committee documents relating to the Act from later years, including hearing records from 1936 and 1947 that have also been digitized, and an administrative procedures document published by the USDA in 1939.  You can also find a number of references to the Plant Quarantine Act in THOMAS. The Act was eventually repealed and replaced by a consolidated statute, the Plant Protection Act of 2000 (7 U.S.C. 7701 et seq.), which governs the activities of APHIS. The Library of Congress also has some other interesting items in our collections relating to Mr. Marlatt himself, including architectural drawings for his house at 1521 16th Street in Washington, DC (apparently he had insect motifs carved into some panels!) and a report he authored in 1889 about wine-making in France.

Of course, we couldn’t have a post about the cherry blossoms without a picture of the trees themselves, so here is one that Megan Lulofs Kuhagen took during her recent visit to the Tidal Basin:

If you haven’t yet visited the cherry blossoms you may only have a small amount of time left to see them this year.  However, the Library of Congress is currently holding an exhibition in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the gift and planting of the cherry blossom trees, which runs until September 15, 2012.  It includes “54 items from the Library of Congress collections, illuminating the story of these landmark trees, the historical significance of cherry blossoms in Japan and their continuing resonance in American culture and for Washingtonians in particular.”

The Library of Congress blog and Picture This, the blog of the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division, have both recently published posts about the exhibition and some of the related items in our collections.  Last week, the Inside Adams blog (science, technology, and business) also published a very informative post about the history of the Washington cherry blossoms.

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