Cherry Blossom Festival

March 18, 2012 by staff 

Cherry Blossom Festival, On March 27, 1912, Helen Taft, the wife of President William Howard Taft, and Viscountess Iwa Chinda, who was married to the Japanese ambassador to the United States, planted two cherry blossom trees in West Potomac Park, a green space on the banks of the Potomac River not far from the National Mall.

The next month, more trees were planted along the Tidal Basin and into Rock Creek Park, the vast urban park that stretches through the capital. Eighteen cherry trees were soon planted on the White House grounds.

This year, Washington will mark the 100th anniversary of those trees, some of which still exist, though most of the originals have died and been replaced. Their blossoming is celebrated annually with the National Cherry Blossom Festival, which is timed for late March, when the blooms are at their peak. This year the festival runs from March 20 to April 27. The peak, when 70 percent of the trees are covered in blossoms, is forecast for March 20-23.

But while the capital celebrates the centennial of the cherry blossom trees (they do not bear fruit), in fact the push to bring the delicate blossoms to Washington began much earlier.

A journalist and a government bureaucrat deserve the credit for what has become one of the signature aspects of the U.S. capital.

The journalist, Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, was the first to sing the praises of the blossom of the sakura trees that she’d found in Tokyo. In 1885, she suggested to the U.S. Army superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds that the trees be brought to the U.S. capital and planted. She repeated that suggestion to successive superintendents for years, without success.

The bureaucrat was David Fairchild, who would become a world renown botanist for his work in the Department of Agriculture’s Section of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction, which dispatched “plant explorers” around the world to find new species to add diversity to the American landscape.

An avid botanist from his youth in Michigan and Kansas, Fairchild joined the section in 1889. In a career that lasted until 1933, he introduced more than 75,000 plants to the United States, including various species of oranges, mangos, dates, cotton and bamboo.

On a trip in 1902, he landed in Japan. Like Scidmore, he was smitten by the cherry blossom trees of Tokyo, with their small pink blossoms.

As a member of the Office of Plant Inspection, he had more luck raising the blossoms’ profile.

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