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Color photograph of "Stumpy" - a thin, short trunk of a cherry blossom tree, hollowed. Several branches, including one long one from the top, are covered in blooming, white-pink flowers. Stump stands on a ledge along the tidal basin. Other cherry blossom trees and the Washington monument are visible on the coast in the background. The sky above is clear and blue.
Stumpy, enjoying a frigid 8 AM breeze along the Tidal Basin. Photograph by Bailey DeSimone.

Stumpy’s Legacy: Laws on Plant Patents and Propagation

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Peak bloom came early this year on March 17, 2024 – the earliest in 20 years. This cherry blossom season is bittersweet, as it is the locally beloved “Stumpy’s” final season on the Tidal Basin. Repairs to the seawalls in the area are scheduled to begin this summer.

The Yoshino Cherry (Prunus xyedoensis) is the prominent flowering cherry of Washington, D.C., gifted to the United States by Japan. This is also the genus to which Stumpy belongs. While the “Akebono” (Japanese for “dawn”) is not patented, other variations of the cherry blossoms are. Plant patents were created by the Plant Patent Act of 1930 (46 Stat. 376) and codified with amendments.

Color photograph of "Stumpy" - a thin, short trunk of a cherry blossom tree, hollowed. Several branches, including one long one from the top, are covered in blooming, white-pink flowers. Stump stands on a ledge along the tidal basin. Other cherry blossom trees and the Washington monument are visible on the coast in the background. The sky above is clear and blue.
Stumpy, enjoying a frigid 8 AM breeze along the Tidal Basin. Photograph by Bailey DeSimone.

“Whoever invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant, including cultivated sports, mutants, hybrids, and newly found seedlings, other than a tuber propagated plant or a plant found in an uncultivated state, may obtain a patent therefor [sic], subject to the conditions and requirements of this title.” (35 U.S.C. §§ 161-164 (1982))

In 1986, William Flemer III of Princeton, New Jersey, was approved for a patent for the Prunus yedoensis “Afterglow” (US-PP05730-P). Another patent was filed by North Carolina State University in 2016 and approved in 2017 for a hybrid flowering cherry, ‘NCPH1,’ identified by its “strict weeping habit, small stature, and showy pink flowers” (US-PP27579-P3).

Many other flowering cherry varieties can be found beyond the Tidal Basin, at locations such as the National Arboretum, including the Prunus “Helen Taft,” a hybrid named for the First Lady who planted the first cherry blossom trees alongside Viscountess Iwa Chinda at Potomac Park on March 27, 1912.

For the at-home gardeners and propagators of plants and herbs, what does this mean for us? The Federal Register states that the removal of plants (like taking live cuttings or blooms from a branch) from their natural state on public property is prohibited, and has been since June 1983 (48 FR 30282; 36 CFR 2.1). Cutting and propagating patented plants is also prohibited by federal law, although plant patents expire after 20 years and become part of the public domain.

Stumpy’s legacy will live on, as the National Park Service and National Arboretum will work together to take cuttings from the tree to propagate and replant along the Tidal Basin once the seawall is repaired. Hopefully, these new blossoms will bring together a community as far and wide as Stumpy did.

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