How DC's National Cherry Blossom Festival became a celebrated US annual spring tradition

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer

The more than a century-old tradition of commemorating the continued close relationship between the United States and Japan has flourished into one of the nation's most celebrated springtime festivals.

“The cherry blossoms represent a major international peace and friendship gesture that we want to keep remembering every year,” said National Cherry Blossom Festival President Diana Mayhew.

The festival honors Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki’s gift of 3,000 cherry trees to Washington, D.C., in 1912.

The history of cherry trees in the nation’s capital dates back to 1885, when Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, an American writer, photographer and the first female board member of the National Geographic Society, returned with the idea following the first of her many trips to Japan.

National Cherry Blossom Festival

The tradition of Washington, D.C.'s famous annual National Cherry Blossom Festival dates back to the late 1800s. (Photo/National Cherry Blossom Festival)

Having grown fond of the country’s cherry blossoms, Scidmore proposed the planting of cherry trees along the Potomac waterfront to the U.S. Army Superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings. However, her attempt failed, according to the National Park Service.

She continued to approach park officials over the course of 24 years, but her request repeatedly fell on deaf ears.

The idea of planting cherry trees in D.C. gained traction in 1906, when U.S. Department of Agriculture official Dr. David Fairchild imported cherry trees from Japan to his own property on the Fairchild Estate in Maryland, according to the National Park Service.

The following year, the Fairchilds began promoting the idea of planting Japanese flowering cherry trees along avenues throughout D.C.

In 1909, Scidmore enlisted the help of First Lady Helen Herron Taft, who had once lived in Japan, to initiate a plan to raise money to buy cherry trees. Those trees would then be donated to D.C., according to the National Park Service.

By January 1910, 2,000 cherry trees had arrived in Washington, D.C., from Japan.

Upon inspection of the trees, the Department of Agriculture found them to be diseased and infested with insects and nematodes, determining that the trees would need to be destroyed.

President William Howard Taft authorized the burning of the ailing trees on Jan. 28, 1910, the National Park Service reported.

By 1912, a second gift of 3,020 cherry trees were sent from Yokohama, Japan, to D.C.

These trees were made up of 12 varieties, including Somei-Yoshino, Kwanzan and Takinioi.

“A few of the original 3,000 or so trees that were gifted still survive,” said National Mall and Memorial Parks spokesman Mike Litterst.

The trees have been replaced and replenished each year, according to Litterst.

“We have about 90 trees each year that need to be replaced, simply because the lifespan of a cherry tree is only about 40-45 years,” he said.

On March 27, 1912, First Lady Taft and the Japanese Ambassador’s wife, Viscountess Chinda, planted two Yoshino cherry trees along the Tidal Basin’s north bank in West Potomac Park.

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This simple ceremony, witnessed by only a few people, has since grown into the National Cherry Blossom Festival.

The first official festival was held in 1935 and has since become an annual event, according to the National Park Service.

First ladies have continued to be proponents of National Cherry Blossom Festival since First Lady Taft’s original involvement.

In 1965, Lady Bird Johnson accepted 3,800 Yoshino trees from Japan’s government and held a tree planting reenactment, according to the festival’s website.

In recent years, all first ladies have served as Honorary Chair of the festival.

Today, the National Cherry Blossom Festival, which features a variety of free events and performances, spans about four weeks and draws in 1.5 million visitors to the nation’s capital, as well as an economy boost of more than $160 million, according to Mayhew.

“The cherry blossoms have really turned out to be the brand of Washington, D.C.,” Mayhew said.

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