The History of Washington D.C.’s Cherry Blossom Trees

The History of Washington D.C.’s Cherry Blossom Trees

Cherry blossom season is almost upon us, and with it comes the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C. In Japan, tons of people look forward to cherry blossom—or sakura—season and hanami, or watching blossoms.

Picture families and groups of friends gathered beneath the pink blossoms with picnic blankets, food, and drink. The season only lasts a few weeks, but everyone gets together to watch the vibrant flowers bloom and petals blanket the ground. Japan even starts its school and fiscal years around the blossoms!

Most of the trees bloom in April, but in warmer regions, you can find them in March, too. Since the trees arrived in the United States, Americans have also participated in the cherry blossom tradition, and people gather from all over the country—and the world—to witness the stunning sight along the Potomac River.

What is now a much-anticipated tradition has a dramatic legacy, and it started long before today’s trees even reached the shores of the US.

These Trees Weren’t the First

The story of the sakura trees begins with Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, a travel writer from Washington, D.C. When she went to Japan in 1885, she fell in love with its cherry blossoms, proclaiming them nature’s most beautiful trees.

She proposed that the government plant them along the Potomac River and sent a letter to the Army superintendent, who controlled that area of land. Except he refused her idea. But that didn’t stop Scidmore. For 24 more years, she approached every single person who took that position and made the same request. She was denied every time—the superintendents just didn’t see the value in the trees that Scidmore (and most people today) saw.

In 1908, Scidmore met David Fairchild at an Arbor Day talk. He loved the cherry blossom trees as much as she did, and he showed it with the 100 sakura trees he had planted on his own land in Maryland. In 1909, when William Howard Taft took office as president, Scidmore enlisted Fairchild’s help and wrote to Taft’s wife, Helen, who Scidmore had met in Japan.

Helen Taft shared a love of cherry blossoms, and she finally accepted Scidmore’s request. A Japanese chemist named Jokichi Takamine gifted Taft with 2,000 sakura trees to symbolize the international friendship between the US and Japan.

There was only one problem. When the trees arrived in the US in 1910, an arborist inspected them and found that they were all infested with parasites and insects that had killed all 2,000 trees on their journey. The trees had to be destroyed.

A Donation from the People of Japan

After learning that the trees died on their journey, Takamine sent over another donation, this time of 3,020 trees. He even sent 12 different species, including Somei-Yoshino, Shirayuki, and Ichiyo, which reached American shores in 1912 alive and well. The first lady, Scidmore, and the Japanese Ambassador’s wife got to work planting the trees for the next eight years.

Over the years, the trees saw their share of hardship. When the Lincoln Memorial was built, people thought that Franklin D. Roosevelt meant to have the trees cut down. A protest ensued, until Roosevelt cleared the issue up, saying that the trees were only going to be transplanted, not completely removed.

During World War II, as animosity grew between the Allied and Axis powers, someone even chopped down four of the trees, though no one ever identified who did it. Later, they faced an entirely different threat, as beavers destroyed a few more of them before the government put barriers around the trees to prevent a similar problem in the future.

A Tradition for One Hundred Years

The first iteration of the National Cherry Blossom Festival happened in 1927, but it didn’t look anything like what we picture today. That year, children reenacted the gifting of the trees from Japan to the US, complete with formal costumes and everything.

The first real Cherry Blossom Festival didn’t happen until 1935, when several civic groups joined forces to expand the event and involve more people. In 1937, D.C. held a festival to honor the anniversary of the trees’ arrival. At that celebration, the Japanese Ambassador’s daughter received the title of Queen of the Cherry Blossoms.

Since then, the festival has become an annual celebration, not just of the flowers’ beauty but of the friendship that exists between the US and Japan. We honor the legacy of the trees and everyone who helped bring them to the US so that we can enjoy them just as so many people have done in Japan for centuries.

In 2021, the National Cherry Blossom Festival looks different than usual. Instead of a large in-person gathering, the National Cherry Blossom website is holding an online event where you can view the blooms via a live webcam.

It might not feel the same as gathering under the trees, but the blossoms still mark the start of spring and we can still look forward to hanami, no matter how it happens. This year marks 109 years since the trees got to the US, and in a few more, we’ll be celebrating 100 years of cherry blossom festivals!

Sarah Wood - March 15, 2021

“History behind DC’s cherry blossoms began years before trees ever took root.” WTOP News. Accessed 4 March 2021.

“History of the Cherry Trees.” National Park Service. Accessed 4 March 2021.

Klein, Christopher. “The Drama Behind 100 Years of Washington’s Cherry Blossoms.” Accessed 4 March 2021.

Takeda, Erina. “Significance of Sakura: Cherry Blossom Traditions in Japan.” Smithsonian Folklife Festival.,colleagues%2C%20friends%2C%20and%20family. Accessed 4 March 2021.

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