March 27: Washington in Bloom

This Day in History

Around this time of the year, Washington D.C flourishes in pink and white as the lovely Japanese cherry trees, scattered along the banks of the Potomac River and across the city, burst in to bloom. 

Although not native to the America, the cherry trees have become so iconic to the landscape of our nation’s capitol that there is a large following dedicated to witnessing the annual blooms. Perhaps more captivating than the flowering pink stems is the history of how these trees came to enhance the scenery. 

On this day in 1912, First Lady Helen Herron Taft, wife of President Taft, and Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador, planted the first two of these trees on the north bank of the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park. 

Prior to the first planting of the historical horticulture, photographer Eliza Scidmore, who was the first female board member of the National Geographic Society, had visited Japan and noticed the native species. Enchanted with the soft, delicate flower, Scidmore championed the idea of introducing the trees to the states. 

The First Lady, who had also lived abroad in Japan in past years, supported Scidmore and began making plans to raise funds. After the Japanese ambassador’s wife heard of Eliza and Helen’s idea, she appealed to the Japanese consul to gift the trees to the U.S government from Tokyo as a symbol of friendship. 

To the Japanese, however, cherry blossom trees were more than just a symbol of friendship. Traditionally, cherry blossoms represent an idea that one’s life, like the tree’s blossom, is fleeting. The Japanese, knowing this, strive to make life as beautiful or successful as possible in that short time. To them, the Cherry Blossom is more than a tree, it is a metaphor for life.

This gift was no doubt a nod to former President Teddy Roosevelt’s successful mediation of negotiations at the Treaty of Portsmouth, which ended the Russo-Japanese War (for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize). The recognition Roosevelt gave to Japan resulted in the country emerging as a notable player on the world’s stage. 

Due to its isolated geography to the rest of the world, Japan had been largely remote and without a strong military base. For centuries, they relied upon the “kamikaze,” or “divine wind,” to cast aside her invading enemies. Once the “Black Dragon” (as they called steam ships) arrived on their shores, however, they recognized their vulnerability and began to build a stronger military. 

In a little over one-hundred years, Japan went from isolated island to emanating military power. Roosevelt further solidified their place in the military world with his negotiations.  As an developing world power, the Japanese were looking to align themselves as allies with the powerful US, in addition to showing genuine appreciation and extending a hand of goodwill. 

Roosevelt negotiating the Russo-Japanese war

The Japanese government sent the US over 3,000 of the beautiful trees to decorate the landscape of the nation’s capital. In 1934, Washington D.C hosted the first annual three-day Cherry Blossom Festival, a tradition that continues today. 

Nearly 30 years after planting the first cherry tree, however, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor as way to assert their dominance as a world military leader. They soon discovered that they had greatly underestimated the “Sleeping Giant.” America would hit back hard, changing the militant Japanese culture forever.

After the war, in an effort to reunite and restore land and relations, the U.S government sent Washington D.C cherry blossom stems to be planted on the war-torn Japanese soil. Today, the exotic trees dispersed throughout the D.C metropolis are a beautiful reminder of friendship and the fleetingness of life every spring! 

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