This Day In History: The First Cherry Blossom Trees Were Planted In Washington, D.C. In 1912

By Karen Harris

Tourists enjoy blooming cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin with the Washington Monument in the background on March 31, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Chen Mengtong/China News Service via Getty Images)

Millions of delicate pink blossoms herald the coming of spring in the nation's capital, but the trees are not native to the region. In fact, beginning on March 27, 1912, they were deliberately planted after decades of lobbying.

Scidmore's Campaign

Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore was a woman ahead of her time. In the late 1800s, when most women were largely confined to the home, Scidmore was traveling the world as a writer and diplomat. In 1885, she visited Japan, became enamored with Japanese cherry blossom trees, and resolved to stop at nothing to get them planted along the waterfront in Washington, D.C., where she lived. It wasn't even clear if cherry blossom trees could grow in Washington, but after experimenting with them on his own property in nearby Maryland, Dr. David Fairchild of the U.S. Department of Agriculture joined Scidmore's crusade. With him on her side, she enlisted First Lady Helen Tuft, who had previously lived in the Japan, for fundraising services as well as the legendary visiting Japanese chemist who discovered both adrenaline and takadiastase, Dr. Takamine Jōkichi. Thanks to Takamine, the mayor of Tokyo gifted Washington with 2,000 cherry blossom trees.

Cherry blossom trees given by the City of Tokyo to the United States to plant along the Potomac River being burned. (U.S. National Arboretum/Wikimedia Commons)

A Slight Hitch

The trees arrived in Washington on January 6, 1910, to be housed at the Department of Agriculture until it was warm enough to begin planting, but the team there soon discovered the trees were infested with insects and nematodes. The only way to prevent the spread of the invasive pests was to burn the trees so many people had worked so hard to secure. Fortunately, after the Secretary of State wrote a doleful letter to the Japanese ambassador about the catastrophe, the mayor promised not only to replace the trees but send 1,000 more.

On March 27, 1912, the First Lady joined Viscountess Chinda, the wife of the Japanese ambassador, along the northwest bank of the Tidal Basin for a small but special ceremony where each woman planted one Japanese cherry blossom tree. Today, if you venture a few hundred yards west of the John Paul Jones Memorial at the end of 17th Street Southwest, you can find the first two cherry blossom trees planted in Washington, D.C., identifiable by the large bronze plaque near their bases.

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.