By Diana Parsell
The cherry trees are blooming in Washington. Tuesday, March 27, 2012, marks 100 years since First Lady Helen Taft and the Japanese ambassador’s wife, Viscountess Iwa Chinda, planted the first two trees. No photographs of the event exist, and newspaper accounts were sketchy. But historical records offer a picture of what happened that day and how it came about.
“Nellie” Taft must have been in high spirits when she set off from the White House by motorcar to watch, with her guests, as workman began planting the 3,000 cherry trees donated by Japan. The project, dear to her heart, was finally being finished after nearly three years of planning and setbacks. And the weather made it an especially delightful day for an outing.
Spring came late that year. By the end of March, the grass was greening around town and wildflowers appeared in Rock Creek Park. But heavy rains fell for days, accompanied by nighttime freezing. On Monday residents awakened to a fresh snowfall.
Then, almost overnight, the weather changed dramatically. By that Wednesday afternoon, temperatures were climbing to the 60s and light winds blew as Mrs. Taft and her companions gathered at a spot on the northern bank of the Tidal Basin.
An Idea That Grew
Mrs. Taft had hatched the cherry tree project just a few weeks after William Howard Taft was inaugurated as the 27th president in March 1909.
Her original plan was fairly simple: to build a bandstand amid a lovely park setting where Washingtonians could meet on warm evenings for outdoor concerts. She got the idea from a riverside park in Manila, known as the Luneta, which she enjoyed often when her husband was governor-general of the Philippines.
The little-developed Potomac Park seemed perfect for what she had in mind. For decades that part of town had consisted of low-lying tidal flats that were unsightly, foul-smelling and subject to flooding. When the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the river channel to improve navigation, they dumped the silt across the Potomac Flats and created a new island extending eastward, parallel to the shoreline. It gave the city 720 acres of new federal parkland, separated by an artificial inlet shaped like a four-leaf clover ― the Tidal Basin.
A popular paved road, known as the “Speedway,” ran through the park. In her memoir, Helen Taft wrote that she wanted “to convert Potomac Park into a glorified Luneta where all Washington could meet, either on foot or in vehicles, at five o’clock on certain evenings, listen to band concerts and enjoy such recreation as no other spot in Washington could possibly afford.”
At the urging of two people she knew, Mrs. Taft agreed to include Japanese cherry trees in the plans. Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, who saw a chance to fulfill her long-time dream of a cherry-blossom park in Washington, felt the trees should be planted along the Potomac so they would be reflected in the water, “as becomes certain sakuras.” But a USDA biologist named David Fairchild favored an avenue of cherry trees along the Speedway, and the first lady preferred that approach.
Then the plans for Potomac Park quickly took an interesting turn. Soon a much more elaborate scheme was in the works.
Gift of Friendship
Upon hearing of Mrs. Taft’s project, an eminent Japanese chemist in America, Jokichi Takamine, offered to donate 2,000 cherry trees for a much showier display. It was later decided that Tokyo would officially sponsor the gift, as a gesture of friendship from the people of Japan.
While those discussions were underway, Spencer Cosby, a military man in charge of public lands, followed through on Mrs. Taft’s plans for an outdoor concert space and avenue of cherry trees. He ordered his staff to acquire all the Oriental cherry trees they could find at U.S. nurseries; about 90 were sent to Washington and planted along the Speedway. (Over time they didn’t survive). Workers scrambled to construct a bandstand.
On April 17, 1909, just two weeks after Mrs. Taft launched her project, she rode with the president in a small electric car called a landaulette to dedicate the tree-lined drive and open the concert season. About 10,000 people turned out for the event, overrunning the grounds and packing the drive with vehicles.
A month later, while cruising down the Potomac to Mount Vernon with family and friends, Mrs. Taft suffered a stroke. She spent many months working to recover her health and speech.
Later that year, the Japanese sent 2,000 flowering cherry trees as promised. When they arrived, however, U.S. plant inspectors found them badly diseased and full of pests. The entire shipment was burned. It happened at USDA plant warehouses that sat not far from the Washington Monument.
The incident created diplomatic tensions at a time of growing anti-Japanese sentiment on the West Coast. But after delicate negotiations, the Japanese graciously offered to send a replacement batch.
A Lasting Legacy
Now, on the balmy afternoon of March 27, 1912, the first lady looked forward to seeing her long-delayed project completed. At her side stood the Japanese ambassador, Sutemi Chinda; his wife; and Miss Scidmore. Col. Cosby was on hand to direct the planting of the trees, which had arrived the day before.
A few weeks earlier, Mrs. Taft had received a note from the wife of Tokyo’s mayor, informing her the trees had left Japan on Feb. 14, aboard the S.S. Awa Maru bound for San Francisco. Yei Theodora Ozaki added that her husband, who arranged the gift, hoped the trees “will form an avenue in Washington as a memorial of national friendship between the U.S. and Japan.”
The shipment consisted of 3,020 saplings of several varieties, each about 10 feet tall and bundled at the roots. They had been cultivated from choice stock and grown under pristine conditions ― a precaution after the earlier disaster. The new trees were judged to be in excellent condition.
The landscaping plan called for planting most of the trees around the Tidal Basin and along the riverside drive in East and West Potomac Parks. Some were also planted in places such as the White House grounds and Rock Creek Park.
The simple dedication ceremony that Wednesday afternoon was arranged as an official expression of gratitude for Japan’s gift.
The Chindas were new to Washington; exactly a month earlier the count had presented his credentials to President Taft. Much interest surrounded the ambassador’s arrival, for he had attended college in the United States and reportedly played golf and bridge.
Miss Scidmore, a well known travel writer, was included in the group because she had played a key role in the project, and few Americans knew as much about the Japanese as she did. A week earlier she and Mrs. Taft had visited a display of Japanese gardens and a teahouse in New York City, sponsored by the Japan Society. On Friday, March 29, Miss Scidmore was scheduled to give two lectures in Washington, under the auspices of the National Geographic Society, on Japanese landscaping. She planned to show pictures of the 50 varieties of Japanese cherry blossoms and discuss those being planted in Potomac Park. Members of the Japanese Embassy were expected to attend.
The small party huddled on the empty ground several hundred feet west of where a statue of John Paul Jones stands today. Nearby, breezes ruffled the grey-green water of the Tidal Basin, stirring small waves whose caps shimmered in the sunlight like silver petals.
Mrs. Taft took the new shovel that was handed her and plunged it into the ground, marking the hole where the first tree was planted. When she was done, Mrs. Chinda followed her example. At the end of the simple ceremony, the first lady handed the viscountess a bouquet of deep-red American Beauty roses ― a variety that had been cultivated right there in Washington, not far from the White House, in the private garden of a home overlooking Lafayette Square.
Today the cherry trees in East and West Potomac Parks number about 3,700. Most have been replaced over the years, since the typical life span is 40 years. But the two original trees planted that day still stand. Their dark and gnarled shapes blend among the rows of trees around the Tidal Basin that give us the dazzling display of blossoms we see every spring.
Diana Parsell is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C., who is working on a biography of Eliza Scidmore. Visit the project website.