How the cherry trees got to DC

Something I always found interesting about D.C. is that it’s, in a way, defined by the botanical diplomacy between Japan and the United States, with the first successful exchange being three thousand Japanese cherry trees sent in 1912. Today these iconic cherry trees line the mall and waterfront around the Jefferson memorial and much of the waterfront on the Potomac river, with the weeks of their flowering having become a major seasonal attraction and iconic time for the city today. An act symbolic of the common reverence for nature and respect for another different culture. 

cherry trees lining Potomac river in DC
HaizhanZheng/Getty

March 26, 1912: 3,020 cherry trees arrived in Washington, DC. The trees were comprised of the following varieties:

Somei-Yoshino1800
Kwan-zan350
Ichiyo160
Taki­nioi140
Shira-yuki130
Fugen-zo120
Ari ak100
Fuku-roku-ju50
Surugadai­nioi50
Gyo-i-ko20
Mikuruma­gayeshi20
Total3,020

Eliza Scidmore, a tireless cherry tree advocate

black and white portrait of Eliza Scidmore
Eliza Scidmore

The history of how thousands of Japanese cherry trees ended up thriving in the U.S. capitol cannot be mentioned without the person who came up with the idea, its tireless advocate for over two decades, Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore. Scidmore, an author and contributor to the National Geographic Society, eventually wrote to first lady Taft to propose the idea, setting into motion the events that led to their permanence. A Japanese chemist and dignitary at the time offered to donate another two thousand trees to the initiative, which was completed over the next few years.  

Cherry trees as botanical diplomacy

After pitching the idea to each U.S. Army Superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds for over two decades, Eliza eventually wrote directly to first lady Taft to propose the idea, setting into motion the events that led to their permanence in the nation’s capitol. Upon hearing of the project, a Japanese chemist and dignitary visiting DC at the time offered to donate another two thousand trees to the initiative. After receiving the OK from the mayor of Tokyo, and having to burn the first batch, it was completed with a final tally over three thousand.

Nearly half a century later in 1976, for the American bicentennial, Japan gifted 53 bonsai trees to the United States, which now reside in the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the National Arboretum in DC.

It was a gift of friendship, and connection—the connection of two different cultures.

Kathleen Emerson-Dell

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