How D.C.'s Cherry Blossoms Almost Didn't Bloom

Originally published on May 23, 2012 12:01 pm

It was a gift of friendship more than 100 years ago that eventually led to the National Cherry Blossom Festival. The first festival was in 1935, and this year's celebration of the delicate blossoms kicked off Saturday.

The festival draws thousands of tourists to Washington, D.C., every spring, but it almost wasn't so. As NPR librarian Kee Malesky tells us, the first of D.C.'s most famous trees suffered a disastrous fate.

Thanks Japan, But No Thanks

The first group of trees arrived in Washington early in 1910. They were inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and found to be infested with "several kinds of pests, big bugs, little bugs, and fungi, some of them unknown to this country and therefore extremely dangerous."

The trees had to be burned, and, to avoid a diplomatic incident, regrets were sent to the Japanese people.

Washington, Cherry Trees And Lies

The New York Times, however, suggested that the U.S. should have — well, told a fib. It recommended "to have some carefully arranged accident happen to those trees," rather than embarrass Japan. The Washington Post agreed in principle, but felt that "somehow, when cherry trees are involved, the truth has to come out. Washington cannot tell a lie."

Let's Try That Again

Japan sent 3,020 replacement trees, and on March 27, 1912, first lady Helen Taft and the wife of the Japanese ambassador quietly planted the first two trees — specimens of the Yoshino variety — on the northern bank of D.C.'s Tidal Basin.

Over the next few years, more than 3,000 trees of 12 different varieties were added along the Tidal Basin, around East Potomac Park and on the grounds of the White House. Those two original trees still stand, with a bronze plaque that commemorates the occasion.

A Fleeting Beauty

As the second batch of trees traveled to D.C. from Seattle via insulated freight cars, The Christian Science Monitor waxed poetic: "In the April sunshine, better still by moonlight, and best of all by the poet's pale, pure light of dawn — the blooming cherry tree is the most ideally, wonderfully beautiful tree that nature has to show, and its short-lived glory makes the enjoyment the keener and more poignant."

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