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Cherry Crush

May 4, 2010
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For centuries, trees have been planted to honor an accomplishment, important milestone or rite of passage - birth, graduation, wedding, retirement, death, to name a few.

And the specific type of tree chosen usually has some symbolic meaning relative to the event. For instance, the oak tree has always been a symbol of strength and courage - "the mighty oak," they always say. And the Bonsai tree has long symbolized harmony, peace and balance.

When someone plants one tree to mark a triumph, it's quite significant. But in early April this year, when I was in Washington, D.C. traveling for Davey Tree, I saw such a stunning display of trees and realized when someone plants many trees in a symbolic fashion, the result can be extraordinary.

I stood amongst the 3,750 flowering cherry trees on the Tidal Basin - their dark trunks set off by breathtaking crowns of pale pink and white blossoms. As the wind of the Potomac River kicked up, I stood under one of these trees in a light rain of pastel petals drifting past me to the earth. It was beyond magical.

And it piqued a curiosity in me. Who was inspired to plant the first tree that would lead to this magnificent vista that marks D.C. as an early spring tourist attraction just for the sake of witnessing these delicate blooms? What story travels through soft whispers on the wind that rustles the leaves of this massive show of trees to explain their presence?

So I did some digging.

The story starts with one woman - Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore - who was inspired by the cherry trees she saw on her first visit to Japan in 1885. For 24 years she approached Army superintendents of the U.S. Office of Public Buildings and Grounds proposing they plant cherry trees along the reclaimed Potomac waterfront. But she had little success.

Meanwhile, Dr. David Fairchild, a plant explorer and U.S. Department of Agriculture official, imported and planted 100 various types of Japanese cherry trees on a hillside on his property in Chevy Chase, Md., where he tested their hardiness. Pleased with the results, he promoted the trees as ideal for the avenues of Washington.

By 1909, Scidmore had sent a note to First Lady Helen Taft about her new plan for purchasing cherry trees and donating them to the city. Taft had lived in Japan and was familiar with the beauty of the flowering cherry trees, so she responded suggesting an avenue of them.

Dr. Jokichi Takamine, a Japanese chemist, was in Washington at the time and was told about this plan. He offered to donate an additional 2,000 trees to fill the area as a gift from Tokyo.

Many of the initial trees were found to have insect and disease infestation, according to the Department of Agriculture. To protect American growers, the trees were destroyed. Some of those trees were saved for study and planted in an experimental plot nearby.

Japan again donated the money for the trees, increasing the number to 3,020.

On March 27, 1912, Helen Taft and Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese Ambassador, planted the first two Yoshino cherry trees on the northern bank of the Tidal Basin, about 125 feet south of what is now Independence Avenue, SW. Workers planted the rest. After the ceremony, the first lady presented a bouquet of "American Beauty" roses to Viscountess Chinda - Washington's renowned National Cherry Blossom Festival grew from this simple ceremony. The two original trees still stand several hundred yards west of the John Paul Jones Memorial, located on the terminus of 17th Street, SW. Bronze plaques at the bases of the trees commemorate the occasion.

The Japanese Government made another gift of 3,800 Yoshino trees to another first lady devoted to the beautification of Washington - Lady Bird Johnson, wife of President Lyndon Johnson - in 1965. American-grown this time, many of these were planted on the grounds of the Washington Monument.

Between 2002 and 2006, 400 trees, propagated from the surviving trees from the 1912 donation, were planted to ensure the genetic lineage of the original trees is continued.

Cherry trees symbolize death, rebirth and new awakenings. Between the U.S. and Japan, they symbolize international friendship that has incredibly deep roots. In fact, the symbol is so strong that even on Dec. 11, 1941, four cherry trees were cut down in suspected retaliation for the Japanese attack against the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. 

Today, cherry blossoms are connected to innocence, spring and simplicity.

As another wind blows and a cascade of delicate petals tickle my face, I am reminded that trees are significant no matter what they symbolize - from one person's memory to world peace.

"Think you're a big fan of trees? We'd love to hear about it. Send your thoughts to Dave or Daphne at blog@davey.com ."

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