Starting on Tuesday, 27 March this year, Washington, D.C., will mark the 100th anniversary of the Japanese cherry trees that have been the focus of an annual festival in the Nation’s Capital for 77 years. The National Cherry Blossom Festival is one of the most popular events in Washington and brings many visitors to the city, and especially the Tidal Basin, where the original gift from Japan creates one of the most stunning sights in the country—if not the world. The white and pale pink blooms—the Washington trees don’t bear fruit—reflecting in the water of the little inlet within view of the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial (my candidate for the most beautiful monument in the Capital), on a sunny, warm spring afternoon provide the backdrop for a tranquil stroll along the lawn (dogs, by the way, are welcome at the Tidal Basin, though there are common-sense rules for canine decorum) or a long moment on a bench. (Parking, potential visitors should note, is very difficult—almost impossible, to be accurate—near the Tidal Basin when the trees are in bloom.)
Japan gave 3,020 cherry trees (Prunus serrulata, often called sakura after the Japanese name for the variety) to the United States on 27 March 1912 to celebrate the nations’ growing friendship, replacing an earlier gift of 2,000 trees in 1910 which had to be destroyed because of infestation. The 1912 trees, a gift from Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo to the city of Washington like the earlier sakura, line the shore of the Tidal Basin in Washington, where the first two were planted by First Lady Helen Herron Taft and Viscountess Iwa Chinda, wife of Count Sutemi Chinda, the Japanese ambassador to the U.S.
The effort to bring cherry trees to Washington, however, preceded the official planting by several decades. In 1885, Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, a writer, photographer, and geographer who’d go on to become the first female board member of the National Geographic Society, returned from her first trip to Japan and, enchanted by “the most ideally, wonderfully beautiful tree that nature has to show,” suggested to Spencer Cosby, Superintendent of the U.S. Army Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, planting cherry trees along the barren parkland that had just been reclaimed from the Potomac River’s mud flats. Cosby rejected Scidmore’s idea, but she continued to propose it to every superintendent for the next 24 years. Several private individuals brought cherry trees to the region during this period and Scidmore herself hosted a cherry blossom tea party and viewing in northwest D.C. in 1905. Among the guests was prominent botanist David Fairchild and his fiancée Marian, the youngest daughter of inventor Alexander Graham Bell.
In 1906, Fairchild, manager of the Office of Seed and Plant Introduction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, imported 1,000 cherry trees from the Yokohama Nursery Company in Japan and planted them on his own property in the Washington suburb of Chevy Chase, Maryland. The following year, the Fairchilds, pleased with the success of the transplants, began promoting Japanese flowering cherry trees as ideal to plant along avenues in the Nation’s Capital. On 26 September 1907, with the help of the Fairchilds and their friends, the Chevy Chase Land Company ordered 300 Japanese cherry trees for the suburb. In 1908, Fairchild donated sakura saplings to every school in the District to plant on its grounds in observance of Arbor Day on 15 April. Concluding an Arbor Day speech that Eliza Scidmore attended, Fairchild proposed that the "Speedway" (a road around the Tidal Basin that no longer exists) be turned into a "Field of Cherries." The next year, Scidmore decided to raise the money to donate cherry trees to the District of Columbia for this purpose.
In April 1909, the Japanese chemist who discovered adrenaline, Jokichi Takamine, happened to be in Washington with Kokicho Midzuno, the Japanese consul-general in New York City. Hearing of the plan to plant sakura along the Speedway, Takamine asked if First Lady Helen Taft, who’d been receptive to Scidmore’s cherry tree notion, would accept 2,000 additional trees and Midzuno suggested that the trees be given in the name of the city of Tokyo. Takamine and Midzuno then met the First Lady, who accepted the gift. On 30 August 1909, the Japanese Embassy in Washington informed the U.S. State Department that the city of Tokyo planned to donate 2,000 cherry trees to the United States to be planted along the Potomac. The trees arrived in the Nation’s Capital on 6 January 1910; however, USDA inspectors discovered that the trees were infested with insects and roundworms and had to be destroyed. President William Howard Taft ordered the trees burned and Secretary of State Philander C. Knox wrote the Japanese Ambassador expressing the regret of all involved. Takamine responded to the news with another donation of more trees, 3,020 in all.
On 14 February 1912, 3,020 cherry trees of 12 varieties were shipped to the District of Columbia by way of Seattle, arriving in the Capital on 26 March. In a ceremony the next day, Helen Taft and Viscountess Chinda planted two sakura on the north bank of the Tidal Basin at the end of 17th Street Southwest in West Potomac Park, where they still stand today, marked by a large plaque. At the end of the ceremony, the First Lady presented the Japanese ambassador’s wife with a bouquet of American Beauty roses and in 1915, the United States government responded to Japan’s gesture of friendship with a gift to the Japanese people of flowering dogwood trees. From 1913 to 1920, trees of the Somei-Yoshino variety, which comprised 1,800 of the 3,020, were planted around the Tidal Basin. Trees of the other 11 varieties, and the remaining Yoshinos, were planted in East Potomac Park.
In 1927, a group of American school children re-enacted the initial planting, effectively holding the first “festival,” and in 1934, the D.C. Board of Commissioners, the Capital’s presidentially appointed city council, sponsored a three-day celebration of the flowering cherry trees. The next year, a consortium of District civic groups sponsored the first formal Cherry Blossom Festival, and the trees by this time having become an vibrant part of the Nation's Capital, the festival became an annual event. As if to demonstrate just how treasured the trees had become to Washingtonians, a group of society women, led by flamboyant Washington Times-Herald editor Eleanor “Cissy” Patterson, chained themselves to the trees at the site of the planned Jefferson Memorial on 18 November 1938 to protest plans to cut down trees to clear ground for the monument. The government and the protesters reached a compromise by which additional trees would be planted along the south side of the Tidal Basin to frame the Memorial. The festival sponsors inaugurated a Cherry Blossom Pageant in 1940.
On the night of 11 December 1941, four days after the raid on Pearl Harbor, unknown vandals cut down four sakura during a blackout. Authorities suspected that this misguided act was a retaliation for the Japanese attack, though this was never confirmed. In hopes of discouraging further attacks on the trees, they were referred to as "Oriental" flowering cherry trees during the war. Suspended during World War II, the festival resumed in 1947 with the support of the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the city’s Board of Commissioners.
In 1948, the National Conference of State Societies started the Cherry Blossom Princess and Cherry Blossom Queen programs. Each state and territory selects a Princess, and a Queen is selected to reign over the festival from among the Princesses by a spin of the Wheel of Fortune. (A Japan Cherry Blossom Princess is selected by the Japanese Embassy to participate in the festival. She lights the ceremonial lantern at the Tidal Basin, for instance.) The president of the Mikimoto Pearl Company, Yositaka Mikimoto, donated the Mikimoto Pearl Crown in 1958. Containing more than five pounds of gold and 1,585 pearls, the crown is used at the coronation of the Festival Queen at the Grand Ball, scheduled for Friday, 13 April in 2012.
On 30 March 1954, Sadao Iguchi, the Japanese ambassador to the U.S., gave a 360-year-old stone lantern, a toro, to the city of Washington to commemorate the centennial of the signing of the Japan-U.S. Treaty of Amity and Friendship by Commodore Matthew C. Perry and Shogun Ieyoshi Tokugawa. For several years, the lighting of this toro formally opened the festival; now it’s lit in the middle of the celebration; this is the only time each year that the ancient lantern is illuminated. In 1957, Ryozo Hiranuma, the Mayor of Yokohama, presented a stone pagoda to former Washington commissioner Renah Camalier to "symbolize the spirit of friendship between the United States of America manifested in the Treaty of Peace, Amity and Commerce signed at Yokohama on March 31, 1854."; Camalier subsequently donated the stone monument to the people of the District; it stands at the opposite end of the Tidal Basin from the lantern.
The Japanese gave the District 3,800 more Yoshino trees in 1965. These trees, accepted by First Lady Lady Bird Johnson, were mostly planted on the grounds of the Washington Monument. For the occasion, the First Lady and Ryuji Takeuchi, wife of the Japanese ambassador, reenacted the 1912 planting.
From 1986 to 1988, 676 sakura were planted using $101,000 in private funds donated to the National Park Service to restore the trees to the number at the time of the original gift. Cuttings were taken from the documented 1912 trees in 1997 to be used in replacement plantings and thus preserve the genetic heritage of the grove. In 1999, 50 trees of the Usuzumi variety from Motosu, Gifu, were planted in West Potomac Park. According to legend, these trees were first planted by Emperor Keitai in the 6th century and were designated a National Treasure of Japan in 1922. From 2002 to 2006, 400 trees propagated from the surviving 1912 trees were planted to ensure the genetic heritage of the original donation is maintained.
Of the initial gift of 12 varieties of the first 3,020 trees, two—the Yoshino and Kwanzan—now dominate. The Yoshino produces single white blossoms that create an effect of white clouds around the Tidal Basin and north onto the grounds of the Washington Monument. Intermingled with the Yoshino are a small number of Akebono cherry trees, which bloom at the same time as the Yoshino and produce single, pale pink blossoms. The Kwanzans grow primarily in East Potomac Park and come into bloom two weeks after the Yoshino. They produce clusters of clear pink double blossoms. East Potomac Park also has Fugenzo trees, which produce rosy pink double blossoms, and Shirofugen, which produce white double blossoms that age to pink.
Interspersed among all the trees are the Weeping Cherry, which produces a variety of single and double blossoms of colors ranging from dark pink to white about a week before the Yoshino. Other varieties that can be found are the Autumn Cherry (semi-double, pink), Sargent Cherry (single, deep pink), Usuzumi (white-grey), and Takesimensis (white).
In 1994, the Cherry Blossom Festival was expanded to two weeks to accommodate the many activities that take place during the trees’ blooming. Today the National Cherry Blossom Festival is coordinated by the National Cherry Blossom Festival, Inc., an umbrella organization consisting of representatives of business, civic, and governmental organizations (http://www.nationalcherryblossomfestival.org). More than 700,000 people visit Washington each year to admire the blossoming cherry trees that herald the beginning of spring in the Nation's Capital.
The National Cherry Blossom Festival is planned to coincide as nearly as possible with the blooming of the trees, but because it must be planned long in advance, it sometimes fails to occur during the peak of the cherry blooms. Peak Bloom Date is defined as the day on which 70% of the blossoms of the Yoshino cherry trees are open. The date on which the Yoshino sakura reach peak bloom varies from year to year, depending on weather conditions. The mean date of blooming is 4 April, but nature isn’t always cooperative and the National Park Service horticulturists can’t make an accurate prediction much more than ten days prior to the blooming. The blooming period starts several days before the Peak Bloom Date and can last as long as 14 days; however, frost or high temperatures combined with wind or rain (or both) can shorten this period and all the planning (and hotel reservations) can’t compensate for nature’s whims. This year, for instance, the excessively warm winter caused the trees to flower more than a week before the traditional start of the festival. The blossoms only last about two weeks, so when they sprout early, the festival can be celebrated among trees laden with only green leaflets; if the blooms are late because of colder weather, the trees may be bare or have only buds. With almost 4,000 cherry trees of 16 different varieties in and around the city, though, some will be in bloom during a lot of the early spring weeks, festival or no festival. This March, visitors to Washington at winter’s end were surprised and delighted to see the billowing clouds of flowers across the city, especially around the Tidal Basin. The festivities, of course, go on regardless, and to commemorate the centennial, this year’s festival will comprise five weeks of festivities rather than the usual two, expanded to 20 March-27 April, with the opening ceremony scheduled for Sunday, 25 March. (Because of the extended schedule, events that customarily take place on the same days are this year spread out over the five weeks. Bear in mind that this is a one-time—once in a hundred years—alteration, and the usual procedure will be back in force in 2013.)
The festival customarily begins with a Family Day and an official opening ceremony in the National Building Museum on the last Saturday of March (this year, there are two Family Days, Saturday and Sunday, 24 and 25 March). Members of the Taft, Ozaki, and Takamine families will be in attendance. An array of activities and cultural events takes place on the following days. (Traditionally, the National Cherry Blossom Festival officially begins on or near 27 March, the date of the first planting at the Tidal Basin. This year, the expanded schedule doesn’t even include any activities on that auspicious date.) The Blossom Kite Festival usually takes place during the festival's first weekend (this year, on Saturday, 31 March, on the grounds of the Washington Monument). Every day there is a sushi/sake celebration, classes about cherry blossoms, and a bike tour of the Tidal Basin. Other events include art exhibits, cultural performances, traditional rakugo storytelling presentations, kimono fashion shows, dance, singing, martial arts, and a rugby tournament.
There are stage performances of many types of music, dance, martial arts, marching bands, and other entertainments, normally on the second Saturday of the celebration. This year, the Canon Performance Stage at Sylvan Theater, the festival’s primary stage, has been in operation in the shadow of the Washington Monument from 31 March to 15 April starting at noon. Jazz performances will take place on a stage set before the steps of the Jefferson Memorial in the early evening from 19 to 22 April. When the festival ends, a fireworks show begins on the nearby Washington Channel (on Saturday, 7 April this year, in the middle of the extended celebration). Ordinarily, the next morning, the Cherry Blossom 10-Mile Run begins on the grounds of the Washington Monument and passes within sight of all the Capital’s monuments; this year’s 40th run, however, will be on Sunday, 1 April, at 7:30 in the morning. Later in the day, dignitaries usually gather at the Tidal Basin to participate in a ceremonial lighting of the 360-year old Japanese Stone Lantern (Sunday, 8 April between 12:30 and 4 p.m. for the centennial year). The Japan Cherry Blossom Princess traditionally lights the toro.
Normally on the last Saturday of the festival, the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade takes place along Constitution Avenue. (Katie Couric and Alex Trebec are the hosts this year.) During and after the parade, the Sakura Matsuri-Japanese Street Festival, the largest Japanese Cultural Festival in the United States, takes place at 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, Northwest. (sakura matsuri means ‘cherry blossom festival.’) This year, however, the parade and the street festival are both planned for 14 April, almost two weeks before the festival ends.
In 2009, the National Cherry Blossom Festival introduced an alternative event to its lineup: Cherry Blast, an underground-style mix of projected art, dance performances, live music, fashion, and DJ’s that took place in an empty (but festively decorated) Anacostia warehouse. In 2010, Cherry Blast II moved to a storage warehouse in the hip Northwest neighborhood of Adams Morgan, but still featured an eclectic group of local artists and musicians. Cherry Blast III took place indoors near the Southwest Waterfront in the evening of the 2011 festival's second Saturday, during and after the festival's nearby fireworks show. In 2012, Cherry Blast is scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, 21 and 22 April, at 2235 Shannon Place in Southeast, near the Anacostia Freeway and Anacostia Park along the Anacostia River. (Most partygoers board a special bus at Dupont Circle in Northwest Washington.)
Because of the extended celebration for 2012, there are dozens more activities planned for the Cherry Blossom Festival, some part of the official schedule and others organized independently to coincide with the festival. In ordinary years, with a two-week program, there are fewer events, of course, though celebrations of the blooming trees goes on as long as they’re in flower, irrespective of a formal festival. (There are also city festivals elsewhere, including nearby Philadelphia.) The original trees at the Tidal Basin and their progeny may only bloom for a short, and somewhat unpredictable, period, but other sakura start later or flower longer, so there are pink and white blossoms all over the metropolitan area, and just driving though the city and the suburbs can be enchanting in the early spring. Washington, built partly on reclaimed swampland, can be unbearably steamy in summer and the winters can be bitter and snowy. Though the fall is nice, spring is the Capital’s most delightful season, and the tourists have figured this out! As I said earlier, though, strolling among the old trees around the Tidal Basin, especially with family or friends, is more than worth a day’s respite. I grew up with this phenomenon of nature (assisted by human devotion), and the images of Washington framed by cherry blossoms is a cherished memory still. The last time my family and I went down to the Tidal Basin when the cherries were in bloom, my dad was still well enough to enjoy the outing and I had my dog Thespis, still young and frisky enough to frolic at the end of his leash. Both Dad and Thespis have now died, tinting that memory with sorrow—but it’s still a nice picture. If you can work it out, I heartily recommend a trip to D.C. one spring when the cherry trees are flowering. Believe me, you won’t forget it. (Okay, I’m a chauvinist. So sue me!)
[On Friday, 30 March, the New York Times ran a column by Jackie Calmes, a national correspondent for the paper, recounting her own visit to the Tidal Basin and the cherry trees while they were in bloom. Along with “A Fleeting Beauty, Shared With the Multitudes,” Calmes published a guide to places to eat near the Tidal Basin (“Much to Savor With the Cherry Blossoms”). The illustration with the article, a photograph by Brendan Hoffman, shows a scene that epitomizes springtime in the Nation’s Capital for me: the Jefferson Memorial in the distance, framed above and on the right by the branches of a flowering tree and below and to the left by the waters of the Tidal Basin. It’s an iconic view, one of my favorite images of the city of my birth.]