A Rite of Spring

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003By Nicolle S. A. Lyon

By the time March rolls around, most people are tired of winter and more than ready for warmer days. As winter attempts its last stand, the days get longer and ultimately, spring emerges. After we recover from springing forward, and losing an hour of sleep, it is time to start celebrating our season of rebirth. One of the first rites of passage for the Washington, DC area is the National Cherry Blossom Festival. This year’s 101st celebration, started on Wednesday, March 20th with the Pink Tie Party and runs until April 14th.

Over the four weeks, Washington will surrender to the beauty of those pink and white blossoms as the city usually enjoys some of its best weather before the hot and humid days of summer. Along with March 23rd’s Opening Ceremony at the Warner Theater, we can also look forward to Family Days at the National Building Museum. Children, and the young at heart, can enjoy crafts and live performances that celebrate spring and Japanese art. City in Blossom and Cherry Picks returned featuring almost one hundred restaurants around the area decorated in unifying color schemes and blossom decals to concur with festival-inspired dishes they’ve created. Additionally, Taste of Japan will return on April 4th to the Carnegie Library after a two year hiatus. Visitors will have the opportunity to experience Japanese food and drinks prepared by local restaurants. Whatever your pleasure, there should be an something of interest.

Estimates have over a million visitors coming to enjoy the cherry blossoms whose peak ought to be April 3 – 6. Leading the way, the Indicator Tree blooms seven to ten days earlier than the others. Festivities conclude with a parade on April 13th. – spring’s equivalent of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

More than a celebration of our relationship with Japan, this annual event has a considerable impact on our city in tourist spending. Projected spending for this year should generate over $100,000,000 for the local economy.

Far from the celebration we enjoy today, Japanese Cherry Blossoms were originally a gift to the nation’s capital from Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki on March 27, 1912. The 3000 cherry trees were an effort to enhance a growing friendship between the U. S. and Japan, in addition to, celebrating the continued close relationship between both nations. The first two trees were planted on the north bank of the Tidal Basin in west Potomac Park by First Lady Helen Herron Taft and Viscountess Chinda (wife of the Japanese ambassador). The original gift consisted of twelve varieties. Now, Yoshino and Kwanzan dominate. This gift was reciprocated in 1915 with the presentation of dogwood trees to the people of Japan. Now a permanent part of the landscape, it took a concerted effort to bring the cherry trees here.

Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore (first female board member of the National Geographic Society) first attempted to bring cherry blossoms to the nation’s capital in 1885 after her first visit to Japan. Upon returning, she approached the U. S. Army Superintendent of Office of Public Buildings and Grounds with her proposal to have the trees planted along the Potomac Waterfront. Her request went ignored. Over the next twenty-four years, Eliza petitioned every subsequent superintendent to no avail.
In 1906, Dr. David Fairchild (an official at the U. S. Department of Agriculture) imported seventy-five flowering cherry trees and twenty-five single flowers from Yokohama Nursery Company which he planted on his estate in Chevy Chase, MD. A year later, the Fairchilds started promoting these trees as ideal candidates to plant along the avenues in the Washington area. Friends joined the campaign and on September 26, 1907 arrangements were made with the Chevy Chase Land Company to order 300 trees for the Chevy Chase area.

On Arbor Day 1908, Dr. Fairchild gave cherry samplings to children from each of DC’s public schools and again expressed his belief that ‘speedway’ – the area around the tidal basin – should become a “field of cherries.” After attending, Mrs. Scidmore decided to raise the necessary money to bring the cherry trees to Washington. She sent a note to the new first lady, Helen Herron Taft (who once lived in Japan) expressing her intentions.

Mrs. Taft took up the cause and was promised the trees. On April 13, 1909, the Superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, Colonel Spencer Cosby (U. S. Army) purchased ninety Fugenzo cherry trees which were planted along the Potomac River from the Lincoln Memorial toward East Potomac Park. However, it was determined that the trees were incorrectly labeled, and have since disappeared.

Upon learning of the desire to bring cherry trees to the area, Japanese chemist Dr. Jokichi Takamine (who discovered adrenaline and takadiastase) offered the first lady 2000 trees to help fill out the area. Dr. Takamine was in the D. C. area with Mr. Midzuno (Japanese Consul to New York) who suggested the trees be given in the name of the city of Tokyo. The trees arrived December 10th in Seattle, Washington. They reached Washington, D. C. on January6, 1910. Unfortunately, it was discovered that they were infected with insects and nematodes, and were diseased. They had to be destroyed. President William Howard Taft had to grant consent to have them burned on January 28th.

Tokyo’s City Council granted a second donation. Three thousand twenty cherry trees arrived in Seattle on February 14, 1912 aboard the S. S. Awa Maru. They reached Washington, DC on March 26th. A day later, the first trees were planted. Since First Lady Taft’s involvement, subsequent first ladies have played a prominent role in the cherry blossom festival.

Over the years, the ceremony has grown and inspired revolt. A three day celebration was sponsored by D. C. Commissioners in 1934, and the Cherry Blossom Pageant was introduced in 1940.

In 1937, the selection of the Tidal Basin for the Thomas Jefferson Memorial caused an uproar when the public discovered that some of the cherry trees would be removed. Leading the charge, Eleanor “Cissy” Patterson (owner and editor of the Washington Times – Herald) published articles criticizing the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration and encouraging the public to take action. On November 17, 1938, the day construction was to begin, fifty women marched to the White House with a petition to prevent damage to the trees. A day later they chained themselves to a tree at the construction site. Meanwhile, Patterson led a group of 150 women who seized shovels and re-filled the holes in what became known as the Cherry Tree Rebellion. The Washington Post later reported that the trees were being transplanted. Pres. Roosevelt had the remaining trees relocated in the middle of the night.
Then, on December 11, 1941 (four days after the Empire of Japan attacked Pearl Harbor forcing the U. S. into World War II) vandals cut down four trees. The festival was suspended until 1947.

The Japanese government gifted an additional 3800 Yoshino trees to First Lady Lady Bird Johnson (President Lyndon Baines Johnson) for her beautification plan in 1965. Mrs. Johnson and Mrs. Ryuji Takeuchi (wife of Japan’s Ambassador) re-enacted the planting ceremony of 1912.

Since then, cuttings from the trees have been presented to Japanese horticulturalists (1982) to replace the trees destroyed when a river pattern was changed. In 1994, the festival was expanded to two weeks. With each year, the festival evolves. This year’s celebration promises to deliver a diverse array of activities.

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