DC’s Cherry Blossom Festival Marks Centennial Event

March 13, 2012 Updated: March 21, 2012
Cherry Blossom trees in bloom lining the Potomac river
Cherry Blossom trees in bloom lining the Potomac river in sight of the Washington Monument. The Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington D.C. Begins March 20th and continues till April 27th. (Ron Blunt)

When Japan’s Ambassador to the United States gave a presentation at the Heritage Foundation in Washington earlier this month, he acknowledged the anniversary of the devastating tsunami that had hit his country March 11 of last year. He also noted global concern about Iran and North Korea, and then went on to confess what really worried him—the weather.

“It is too warm!” His Excellency Ichiro Fujisaki told the audience at Heritage. “I am afraid the cherry blossoms will bloom long before the opening ceremony March 25.”

It’s a worry alright. It is Cherry Blossom Festival time in Washington, D.C., and this year is particularly significant marking the 100th anniversary of an enduring gift from the Japanese government to the United States—3,000 cherry blossom trees.

“The Festival is an historic milestone,” festival spokesperson Danielle Piacente said. “One hundred of the trees are still standing today thanks to the care of the National Park Services.”

Cherry blossom trees, including the 100 originals, fringe the Tidal Basin and the river region of Potomac Park, softening the memorials to past U.S. presidents scattered throughout the area.

The cherry blossom is the bloom that marks spring’s arrival in the capital, Piacente said, and the festival presents a very different but welcome view of the nation’s capital.

“I think people do think politics when they think of Washington … the cherry blossom symbolizes rebirth, renewal, and hope, so it is a different vision,” she added.

Piacente expects over one million people to descend upon the nation’s capitol for the five-week event, which begins the first day of spring, March 20, and continues to National Arbor Day, April 27.

The free opening ceremony will be held in the convention center this year, and will be followed by a plethora of events and activities around the city, including: the Cherry Blossom Festival Family Day weekend, March 24 and 25; the Blossom Kite Festival, March 31; fireworks from Nagaoka, Japan, April 7; and the annual Cherry Blossom Festival Parade, April 14.

While 55 percent of those expected to visit D.C. during this time will be from surrounding regions, the rest will come from all over the world. “All eyes will be on Washington, D.C., this spring,” said Piacente.

Cherry Trees

All too obvious to the fretting Japanese Ambassador, it will be the cherry blossom trees that will be the center of attraction at the festival.

Cherry blossom trees given in thanks by Japan to America 100 years ago
Cherry blossom trees given in thanks by Japan to America 100 years ago are being honored as part of the annual Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington D.C. which begins on the first day of Spring March 20 and continues till April 27. (Ron Blunt)

The trees are particularly significant to the Japanese and to the U.S.-Japan relationship. They were a gift of thanks from Japan to America for brokering the Treaty of Portsmouth which had ended the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, says Ann McClellan, author of the official Cherry Blossom Festival book “Cherry Blossoms,” published by National Geographic this year.

The treaty paved Japan’s way to the international community, ending 200 years of solitude for the East Asian nation.

It also solved a problem for then-President William Howard Taft and First Lady Helen, who was particularly enamored with the cherry blossom tree after visiting Japan some years before.

The Tidal Basin, a former swamp, had been drained and dredged but remained a treeless and sparse addition to Potomac Park. One of the First Lady’s first endeavors was to improve the area, says McClellan.

A number of prominent Washington citizens were also cherry blossom fans, including Eliza Scidmore, who became the first female board member of the National Geographic Society, and plant explorer Dr. David Fairchild, who imported and planted 25 varieties of the tree on his estate in Chevy Chase just north of the capital.

Between the three of them, the First Lady, Scidmore, and Dr. Fairchild, it was decided that 50 selected Japanese trees be planted to create an arbor along the Potomac Park carriageway. Japanese officials found out about the First Lady’s passion for the trees and it was agreed that 2,000 cherry trees be sent as a token of thanks to America.

Those trees, however, contained a form of root rot and other fungal diseases, and all but six had to be destroyed.

A “flurry of tactful diplomatic correspondence took place,” McClellan wrote, resulting in a replacement batch of 3,000 trees, grown in virgin soil, which was sent along with 3,000 trees destined for New York’s Riverside. Those trees arrived in Washington on March 26, 1912, and set the scene for the cherry blossom wonderland of today.

Cherry Blossom Magic

When David Fairchild first suggested that the 50 cherry blossom trees be planted along the Potomac Park carriageway, he wrote to the administration, saying: “The location lends itself peculiarly to the fairylike effects which these trees produce near watersides.”

It is true the cherry blossom has a magical quality that has inspired countless treatises, poems, paintings, and artworks over the centuries.

Photographer Ron Blunt, who provided many of the photos in the commemorative book, has spent hours among the Washington trees and says not only do they inspire him, but he sees it in others as well.

Along with photographers and painters who study the trees, “People dress up knowing they will have their photos taken,” Blunt said, adding that “they love to pose.”

The cherry blossom also has symbolic significance for friendship, says Danielle Piacante—sage advice perhaps for the nation’s decision-makers.

“It also symbolizes the gift of friendship, which transcends boundaries and brings people together from all over the globe,” she said.