Today the winter returned after several sunny, still days. As the southerly rips and roars around the garden I look forward to spring, the flowering of my three newly planted cherry blossom trees (Prunus Amanogawa) and remember my northern hemisphere spring earlier this year…
Cherry blossom and the US capital don’t go hand in hand in the way that Japan and cherry blossom do, but Washington DC’s Cherry Blossom Festival attracts one and a half million visitors each year. For the four weeks of the festival in March and April the advent of the cherry blossom is celebrated throughout the city. We arrived by train on the eve of the festival and our Uber driver assured us we were in luck. The cherry blossom had just come out and the weekend was scheduled to be fine with no wind. It won’t last, he told us, strong winds were on their way, his words reminding me of Mary Poppins’ arrival at 17 Cherry Tree Lane.
We walked to see the cherry trees the next morning and the city felt festive. Passing magnolias bursting with pink buds, cheery yellow daffodils and groups of richly hued tulips, we sprung along revelling in the morning sun.
We paused at the Washington Monument before crossing Potomac Park towards the Jefferson Memorial. The circle of cherry blossom trees surrounds the Tidal Basin, an artificial inlet of the Potomac River and we ambled and paused by the water under the froth of pink and white. We were early but others were earlier. We picked our way along joining in the chorus of oohs and ahs. Cameras and phones clicked as festival goers posed against a backdrop of blossom. Young girls peered from behind blossom laden branches, couples sat under trees with blossom dripping above them, families were grouped. Tripods and zoom lens were everywhere, it was a frenzy of photographic artistry. Most of the visitors were American but a number were Japanese, enjoying the magnificence of their native sakura far from home. On the steps of the Jefferson Memorial we sat and looked across the lake framed with trees bedecked with blossom.
It was too early for the food trucks and other festival attractions near the cherry trees but as we wandered around the city reminders and mementos of the cherry blossom we’d seen were everywhere. At the Library of Congress, the gift shop sells cherry blossom bookmarks, jewellery, mugs, tea towels, stationery and tea sets. Shopping at the Smithsonian you can be totally garbed in cherry blossom clothing – there are tee shirts, socks, scarves and caps (a nice alternative to the MAGA caps we kept glimpsing) to wear.
I was curious as to why there are so many cherry blossom trees in Washington DC and on my return to New York found the perfect memento of my trip, a recently published book about an eccentric Englishman, Collingwood Ingram, “who saved Japan’s cherry blossoms”. The book is as much about cherry blossom trees as it is about Ingram. I read how David Fairchild, a botanist at the US Department of Agriculture, was so enamoured with cherry blossom that he suggested cherry trees be planted in the capital’s Potomac Park, a proposal promoted by Helen Taft, wife of the then President. So, in 1909 2000 trees were sent from Japan by Tokyo’s mayor in gratitude for American’s role as a go-between in the Russo-Japanese war. Unfortunately, the trees were infested with insects and had to be incinerated by American quarantine officials. Soon afterwards another set was sent to New York to celebrate the tricentenary of the Hudson River but the steamer carrying them sunk en route. In 1912 it was third time lucky for the indefatigable Tokyo mayor who arranged to donate another 6,020 cherry saplings to the USA. Half went to New York, where some were planted in Claremont Park (later renamed Sakura Park), others in Central Park and some along the Hudson River. The remainder went to Washington DC where Helen Taft planted the first tree around Tidal Basin, now the focal point of the Cherry Blossom Festival. I like to think I walked under the very tree. About 60% of the trees were prunus somei-yoshimo, the most numerous variety in Japan today, while the rest were a mixture of 10 cultivars.
For me Washington DC will always be linked to the pink and white of the cherry trees. Amongst my memories of presidential monuments, the most famous library in the world and a museum I’d planned to visit for decades, I’ll remember a people enjoying their city, their capital and their country against a backdrop of cherry blossom. But above all I’ll remember the beauty of the cherry blossom, a botanist who planted an idea and a First Lady who planted a tree.
The Sakura Obsession: The incredible story of the plant hunter who saved Japan’s cherry blossom. Naoko Abe. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2019.
‘Cherry’ Ingram: The Englishman Who Saved Japan’s Blossoms. Naoko Abe. UK: Vintage Publishing, 2019.