The Corner

Culture

In Praise of Cherry Blossoms

People flock to the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., to see the cherry blossoms during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, March 20, 2020. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

A lovely scene is playing on repeat outside my window. A gust of wind shakes the Japanese cherry tree’s bough, whipping its famous blossoms into a white swarm, then — as the wind stops — its detached petals fall to the ground. If you do not have immediate access to a cherry blossom tree, I recommend looking up this painting by Vincent van Gogh instead (it’s called Almond Blossom, but it’s the same idea).

I was curious to learn how this exotic tree had made its way to America.

It turns out that in 1912, the mayor of Tokyo sent 3,000 trees to Washington, D.C., as a sign of friendship between Japan and the United States. However, the seeds were sown (so to speak) a little earlier, in 1885, by Eliza Scidmore, who, having returned from a trip to Japan, asked the U.S. Army Superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds to consider planting the trees along the Potomac waterfront. Mrs. Scidmore was ignored, but this did not deter her. She kept asking for 24 years, and in 1909, found an ally in the First Lady, who replied to her herself:

The White House, Washington
April 7, 1909

Thank you very much for your suggestion about the cherry trees. I have taken the matter up and am promised the trees, but I thought perhaps it would be best to make an avenue of them, extending down to the turn in the road, as the other part is still too rough to do any planting. Of course, they could not reflect in the water, but the effect would be very lovely of the long avenue. Let me know what you think about this.
Sincerely yours,
Helen H. Taft

By 1952, the grove along the Arakawa River near Tokyo, where the gifted trees had come from, had fallen into decline. In order to preserve continuity, Japan requested help from the U.S. National Park Service, who shipped back budwood from the trees’ American descendants.

Cherry blossoms bloom only once a year; between 16 and 24 times in its lifespan. They are a symbol of the beauty and transience of human life.

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