Happy Birthday, Cherry Blossoms!
the tale of how the Washington DC fairyland of cherry blossoms came into being ~ one hundred years ago
Did you know, there would not have been any cherry blossoms in Washington DC had it not been for a tenacious (and female) travel adventurer and writer?
Eliza Ruhamah Scidmor was an American writer, photographer and geographer. Among other things, she covered the great 1896 tsunami in Japan for National Geographic, eventually becoming the first female board member of the National Geographic Society.
She was often able to travel with her brother, George Hawthorne Scidmore, a diplomat who served in the Far East between 1884 and 1922 ~ and his position gave her entree into regions that were often inaccessible to others.
In 1885, she returned home from a trip to Japan, in love with the Orient's sakura, or cherry blossoms.
“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,” she wrote.
She eyed a stretch of barren parkland that had just been reclaimed from the Potomac River’s mud flats and decided the addition of cherry blossoms would transform it into a "future fairyland."
But it took quite some time to find someone who shared her enthusiasm for the idea. For 24 years, she kept after the Army officers in charge of the area,“but none grew excited or was convinced.”
Finally, on April 5, 1909, Eliza took her idea to a higher power. She outlined a plan to purchase cherry trees for the capital in a letter to first lady Helen “Nellie” Taft whom she'd met briefly in Japan.
After decades of rejection, it took just two days to get a positive response from the first lady. “I have taken the matter up and am promised the trees,” Mrs Taft replied.
Japanese chemist Dr Jokichi Takamine internationally renowned for his discovery of the existence of adrenaline, shipped 2000 trees as a symbol of international friendship.
Unfortunately, the first trees arrived with some unexpected passengers ~ insects and parasitic worms ~ and had to be destroyed. Undeterred, Takamine sent an even larger shipment of more than 3000 cherry trees, composed of a dozen varieties ~ a gift from Tokyo.
This batch of trees reached the capital in March of 1912 in perfect condition. In a simple ceremony, the first lady and the Japanese ambassador’s wife dug spades into the ground to begin planting the first two trees, while Eliza watched nearby.
These two trees still stand today, one hundred years later, along the northwest wall of the Tidal Basin.
The beautiful flowering trees were a sensation.
“The Japanese have given us their favorite,” Eliza wrote. “Their own mountain flower, the soul of Japan, the symbol of all they adore and aspire to.”
They quickly became such a beloved Washington institution that the selection of the Tidal Basin as the location for the new Jefferson Memorial led to howls of public protests from those fearing the mass removal of the trees and in November 1938, more than 150 society ladies in furs descended upon the memorial’s construction site in what became known as “The Cherry Tree Rebellion.”
Some chained themselves to cherry trees, while others grabbed shovels out of the workers’ hands and, much to the astonishment of Civilian Conservation Corps engineers and gardeners, started replacing the dirt that had been removed from around the trees.
“This is the worst desecration of beauty in the capital since the burning of the White House by the British,” one protestor stated dramatically.
President Franklin D Roosevelt assured the ladies that the trees were just going be transplanted, not cut down, and joked that if the protestors didn’t leave, “the cherry trees, the women and their chains would be gently but firmly transplanted in some other part of Potomac Park.”
That night, under the cover of darkness after the protestors had left, the cherry trees were uprooted and quietly moved.
And for one hundred years, the famous cherry blossoms have withstood damage by beavers, the adoration of hoards of camera-wielding tourists...
... and even post-Pearl Harbor outrage when, for a few years, they were referred to as the "Oriental" (instead of Japanese) cherry trees.
When Eliza died of heart failure at 72 in Switzerland in 1928, the Japanese government requested her ashes and created a memorial to her in a Yokohama cemetery.
In 1991, a few young plants grafted from the trees were gifted back to Japan, one of which now graces the front of her tombstone, which reads...
“A woman who loved Japanese cherry blossoms rests in peace here.”
© Kristin Fellows 2012
All images taken with a Canon PowerShot SX30 IS.
(more information about this camera @ http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/SX30IS/SX30ISA.HTM)