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.

1 comment:

Leigh Anne Nottingham said...

The trees in bloom are so beautiful. Thanks for sharing such interesting history and info about the festival. I'd love to be there for it someday.