The signature of the American botanist who helped bring the famous Japanese cherry blossom trees to the United States was discovered by this author on a 1901 map of Japan. David Fairchild (1869-1954) traveled the world on behalf of the U.S. government and introduced more than 200,000 varieties of crops and plants to this country. His signature, along with the self-described title “agricultural explorer,” sits among his extensive annotations about Japanese plants and crops, including a note about cherry blossom trees, which the Japanese call sakura. He likely signed the map and annotated it during his trip to Japan in 1902.
The Welcome Society of Japan published the map, which measures 22.5 x 34.5 inches in size and is handsomely colored. The organization was interested in fostering American-Japanese relations and dispelling misunderstandings and prejudices between the two countries. The map’s creators used traditional provincial place names, rather than modern ones that gradually appeared in the Meji era (1868-1912). The map appeared in several editions and was supplemented by a guidebook, which has been digitized and can be accessed on the Library of Congress website.
While the map itself is an important historical artifact, it is uniquely interesting because of Fairchild’s numerous annotations. Among his many notes, he wrote that the best rice is said to come from Higo Province, giant radishes from Sakurajima, and large bamboos from Kagoshima. He found “[l]ong tail fowls” and Juncus effuses in Hiroshima. Concerning the famous cherry blossom trees, he noted that Yoshino is the “center of cherry blossom cult[ivation].”
Fairchild fell in love with the cherry blossom trees during his trip to Japan. He felt that the climate of Washington, D.C., and Japan were similar enough that the trees could be planted and sustained in the capital city of the United States. Fairchild initially brought 125 trees to his estate in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and, with the help of a Japanese gardener, successfully cultivated them.
Fairchild teamed with other advocates to urge then-First Lady Helen H. Taft to support bringing cherry blossom trees to the Tidal Basin, near the National Mall. These efforts were successful, and the mayor of Tokyo sent 2,000 cherry blossom trees to Washington as a gift in 1910. While the first batch of trees had to be destroyed because of pests and disease, a second shipment arrived without issue and was planted on the north bank of the Tidal Basin. The trees are considered a national treasure and the National Cherry Blossom Festival is celebrated every spring in Washington, D.C.
The author wishes to thank Setsuko Means, Geography and Map cataloging specialist, for updating the map’s catalog record.