Historical Landmark of the Month (March-April): Cherry Blossom Festival

With the pending arrival of Spring, I felt compelled to do a little research on one of the most significant Spring events in Washington, DC---the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. For 2009, the Cherry Blossom Festival runs from March 28 - April 12. Although events take place in various locations downtown, the epicenter of the Cherry Blossom Festival is downtown at the Tidal Basin, which surrounds the Jefferson Memorial and the FDR Memorial.

On the Tidal Basin, looking towards the Jefferson Memorial.

The Festival annually commemorates the 1912 gift of 3,000 cherry trees from Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo to the city of Washington, honoring the lasting friendship between the United States and Japan and celebrating the continued close relationship between our two cultures.

Mayor Ozaki in 1917; 5 years after the first gift of trees

In 1884, Mrs. Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore returned to DC after a trip to Japan with an idea that Cherry Trees would be ideal for the newly reclaimed Potomac waterfront. For the next 3 decades, she worked tirelessly to bring about her dream, and in 1909, was successful in enlisting the help of First Lady Helen Taft. In 1912, after a series of unsuccessful starts, 3,020 cherry trees were delivered to Seattle aboard the Japanese transport ship "S.S. Awa Maru".

Side note: the first delivery of trees (in 1910) were found to be infested with insects and diseases and had to be destroyed.

A wagon full of cherry trees arrives in DC; 1910

On March 27, 1912, First Lady Taft and Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador, planted the first two trees from Japan on the north bank of the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park. In 1915, the United States Government reciprocated with a gift of flowering dogwood trees to the people of Japan. A group of American school children reenacted the initial planting in 1927 and the first "festival” was held in 1935, sponsored by civic groups in the Nation’s Capital.

The Japanese Ambassador and Viscountess Chinda

(Additional side note: the S.S. Awa Maru, during WWII, was contracted by the International Red Cross as a relief ship, carrying vital supplies to American and Allied POW's in Japanese custody. On 1 April 1945, it was mistaken for a destroyer by an American submarine and sunk with 4 torpedoes, killing all 2,000 people onboard.)

The Awa Maru

World War II was a time of difficult relations between the US and Japan, but the festival resumed in 1947. First Lady Lady Bird Johnson accepted 3,800 more trees in 1965.

First Lady Ladybird Johnson planting a cherry tree at the 1965 Cherry Blossom Festival on the Tidal Basin

In 1981, the cycle of giving came full circle. Japanese horticulturists were given cuttings from our trees to replace some cherry trees in Japan which had been destroyed in a flood.

First Lady Nancy Reagan presented a descendant of the original trees to Japanese Ambassador Yoshio Ogawara during a White House ceremony in January 1981.

The most recent event in this cycle occurred in the fall of 1999. It involved the formal planting in the Tidal Basin of a new generation of cuttings from a famous Japanese cherry tree in Gifu Prefecture reputed to be over 1,500 years old.

In Japan, the flowering cherry tree or "Sakura", as it is called by the Japanese people, is one of the most exalted flowering plants. The beauty of the cherry blossom is a potent symbol equated with evanescence of human life and epitomizes the transformations Japanese Culture has undergone through the ages. The date when the Yoshino cherry blossoms reach peak bloom varies from year to year, depending on weather conditions

The Festival was expanded to two weeks in 1994 to accommodate a diverse activity schedule during the trees’ blooming. Today, more than a million people visit Washington, DC each year to admire the blossoming cherry trees and attend events that herald the beginning of spring in the Nation’s Capital. I'll be highlighting several of them over the next few weeks.

New DC Residents

I wanted to briefly mention two new residents of DC. I'm not talking about the new administration--I'm referencing two significant births at the National Zoo!

The baby goes for a ride!

Back on Januray 10th, a baby female Western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla--isn't that a great Latin name!) was born to mom Mandara and dad Baraka. The baby is the seventh successful gorilla birth for the Zoo since 1991 (Gorillas reproduce slowly because females do not begin reproducing until the age of nine or ten and usually only produce one baby approximately every five years.) According to a zookeeper, the baby just passed another milestone. Just two months old, she already has her first four teeth! Many parents out there may think that this is fast, and while gorilla infants may be smaller than human babies at birth (four to five pounds), they develop roughly twice as fast.

Mandara and baby

The gorilla birth is significant--Western lowland gorillas, which are native to tropical forests of West and Central Africa, are listed as critically endangered, primarily due to habitat loss and fragmentation and poaching.

You can see some video of mom and baby here:

On March 12th, a baby Giant Anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) was born--only the 2nd anteater to be born here in 120 years! Zoo staff had been closely monitoring mother Maripi for the past six months, performing weekly ultrasounds and other diagnostics. The baby's gender hasn't been determined- partly because they are allowing mother and baby time to bond, and partly because it's been so long since anyone has seen a tiny anteater that no one remembers how to check the sex (ok..I just made up that last line).

The baby’s father, named Dante, has been separated because giant anteater fathers play no part in the rearing of offspring. Dante and Maripi's first offspring, Aurora, was born in July 2007. She now resides in a zoo in France.

Giant anteater habitat spans most of Latin America—from Belize to Argentina. Anteaters use their keen sense of smell to detect termite mounds and anthills and tear them open with strong claws to suck up insects through their elongated jaws. Anteaters also have sticky tongues that can extend up to two feet long and help collect insects—they can eat up to 30,000 ants a day!

The unnamed, mysterious baby.

Stop by and check them out..it's your zoo, and it's free!

Historical Landmark of the Month (March): St. Patrick's Catholic Church

In light of March 17th, I wanted to share some information about a local DC landmark, St. Patrick's Catholic Church. St. Patrick's, located at 10th Street between F and G Streets NW, was founded in 1794. It's known as the "Mother Church of Washington" since it was the first church of any denomination founded within the boundaries of the city.

The cornerstone of this Gothic church building was laid in 1872. The initial structure on the present property was a simple frame chapel.
Services began in 1794 to minister to the needs of the stonemasons building the White House and the U.S. Capitol (this was six years before the government moved to the Capital in 1800), and continue to this day.

St. Patrick's

The first American to be ordained a Catholic priest in the United States, Father William Matthews, was named pastor in 1804. In addition to being the pastor of St. Patrick's for fifty years, he was also President of Georgetown University and co-founder of the D.C. Public Library (the man knew how to multi-task!).

Like many other things in DC, it will be forever linked to the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln. After Lincoln's assasination in 1845, one of the alleged conspirators, Mary Surratt, turned to St. Patrick's pastor, Father Jacob A. Walter, for guidance and spiritual comfort following her arrest and conviction. Father Walker was a staunch defender of Surratt's innocence and he walked with her to the gallows on July 7, 1865 (as she became the first woman executed by the federal government.)

Newspaper drawing of Mary Surratt in the death cell with her priest; July 1865

It was under Father Walter's direction that the present gothic church was begun in 1872 and finally dedicated in 1884. It's been there every since, and seen many Presidents, diplomats and heads of state as they passed through DC. I think I'll head down on Tuesday to take in the festivities.