At 100, the Cherry Trees: Enduring and Fragile Sign of Spring

This spring marks the 100-year anniversary of Japan’s gift of cherry trees to beautify the Tidal basin and National Mall. This was one of the better years of perfect weather for the blossoms, though they came too early for most. They are the official sign of spring and also the beginning of the tourist season in Washington. Their clouds of pink blossoms offer a brilliant picture that is quite different from the project that faltered many times along the way.   The plan to have cherry trees in and around the Mall came from a Washington socialite who worked hand-in-hand with President Taft’s wife -- First Lady Helen "Nellie" Taft -- to get the trees here from Japan, both as a symbol of our two countries’ friendship and as a way to beautify the swampy, derelict Mall area. But the sacred trees, called Sakura in Japan, went through a series of mishaps which very nearly killed all these ambitious plans. When the first shipment of 90 trees arrived and were planted, they turned out to be the wrong variety and had to be dug up. Then a shipment of 2,000 trees arrived as a gift from the government of Japan, but when the Department of Agriculture inspected the trees, they were found to be diseased, so President Taft himself ordered them to be burned in huge pyres. The governments exchanged letters, and the deeply embarrassing incident was fixed diplomatically.   Two years later, 3,000 disease-resistant cherry trees arrived and with great ceremony, were planted and thrived to the delight of the whole city. Fifty years after that, when Lady Bird Johnson beautified the city with her pocket parks, the government of Japan sent 3,800 more to be planted around the Washington Monument.   These trees have always brought an emotional response from Washingtonians. In 1938, during construction of the Jefferson Memorial, workers started to clear some of the cherry trees for the construction site, and an angry group of women protestors chained themselves to the endangered trees to stop them from being cut down. The government intervened and promised to replace any trees that had to come down.   While the blossoming trees look tranquil, they are very high-maintenance. They last a maximum of 30 to 50 years, so the government is constantly replacing dying trees. The heavy limbs are susceptible to wind, hail and snow storms, and these damaged trees also have to be periodically replaced.   In 1912, during the ceremony of the tree planting, the Japanese ambassador predicted, “Almost all the world is at peace today, and there will be peace for thousands of tomorrows. War has had its day.” Of course, that’s not how things turned out, and during World War II, Washingtonians took to calling the cherry trees “Oriental” instead of “Japanese.”   Each spring, Washingtonians wait and worry, because they can remember years when the buds and blossoms froze or were decimated in wind and sleet storms. In Japan, and for the last 100 years in Washington, the clouds of blossoming trees which appear magically almost overnight, symbolize the precariousness of nature and of our own existence, all the things that are most important and over which we have the least control.   Donna Evers is the owner and broker of Evers & Co. Real Estate, the largest woman-owned and -run real estate firm in the Washington area, the proprietor of historic Twin Oaks Tavern Winery in Bluemont, Va., and a devoted student of Washington history. E-mail her at

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