Historic Trees. You are standing near two of the most important cherry trees in Washington, D.C. These Yoshino Cherries (Prunus x yedoensis) are among the 3,700 trees of various species that grow in East and West Potomac Park and on the Washington Monument grounds. On March 27, 1912, First Lady Helen Taft joined Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese Ambassador to the United States, on this spot to plant these two trees. Located nearby, a stone bearing a bronze plaque commemorates this occasion.
Inception and Early Promoters. Born in Lansing, Michigan, David Fairchild was employed at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He was instrumental in the earlier plantings of Japanese flowering cherry trees in the Washington, D.C. area. Upon his 1902 visit to Japan, Fairchild, so impressed with the picturesque beauty of the cherry trees lining the waterway and streets, left determined to plant these trees on his Chevy Chase, Maryland estate. Four years later, Dr. Fairchild brought his idea to fruition by planting seventy-five flowering and twenty-five weeping cherry trees on his estate. Pleased with their hardiness, he ordered another three hundred trees for the Chevy Chase area. In 1908, Fairchild donated cherry saplings to each District of Columbia school for Arbor Day. At the time, he expressed his desire to see a procession of cherry trees planted along the "Speedway" (present day Independence Avenue) in Potomac Park.
The cherry trees help transform the capital city into a cloud of white and pink blossoms during Washington's week-long rite of spring. The hundreds of thousands of tourists and locals who come to view the blossoms should thank early promoters such as Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, an American travel writer and photographer. Upon her return from a visit to Japan in 1885, Ms. Scidmore petitioned the Superintendent of Public Parks and Grounds to advocate planting cherry trees throughout portions of Potomac Park. Her appeals failed, yet she persevered for twenty-four years.
Culmination. In 1909, Mrs. Scidmore, in her quest to beautify Washington D.C., decided to raise the money required to purchase and donate cherry trees to the city. She sent a note to First Lady Helen Taft who responded with great enthusiasm, saying
Thank you very much for your suggestion about the cherry trees. I have taken the matter up and am promised the trees.
As the wife of President William Howard Taft, Helen was very active in working to beautify the undeveloped Potomac River. Mrs. Taft, who was born and educated in Cincinnati, Ohio, traveled with her husband to the Philippines and Japan. Upon returning to Washington, she instructed the White House gardener to plant ninety Japanese cherry trees near the Lincoln Memorial.
Hearing of the plantings, the Major of Tokyo, Yukio Ozaki, offered 2,000 cherry trees as a gift of friendship. On January 6, 1910, the cherry trees arrived in Washington D.C. from Japan. To everyone's dismay, inspection found insects and nematodes (worms). President Taft ordered the trees burned. Letters of deep regret circulated among the President, Secretary of State, and the Japanese Ambassador, and staved off a diplomatic setback. Mayor Ozaki immediately arranged for replacements, and on March 27, 1912, the first plantings of some 3,020 cherry trees commenced along the Potomac River, Rock Creek, and the White House grounds.
Today, perhaps fewer than 200 of the original trees sent by Mayor Ozaki still survive. The two Yoshino trees planted by Mrs. Taft and Viscountess Chinda remain as a true testament to all those who persevered to create an attractive setting for Washington's cherry trees.