Cherry blossom trees are as much part of America’s capital as the marble facades, high-end cupcakes, and clean angular streets. And this time of year, their pink flowers—and the crowds they attract—are impossible to miss. There's even a small cottage industry that's grown along with the trees, complete with a PR team, an elite group of gardeners, and weather monitoring officials to forecast “peak bloom” (this year, it's March 23 and 24).
The trees weren’t always a part of the city. They come from Japan, where they’re known as “sakura,” and where they had grown long enough to evolve differently from other trees that produce cherries (the cherry blossoms mostly don’t). The story of how they made their way to the U.S. is almost as remarkable as the blossoms themselves, and it might never have happened if not for a fortuitous meeting more than a century ago in Yokohama, just south of Tokyo.
At a time when American agriculture was as colorful as dirt, a food hunter for the USDA named David Fairchild went in search of novel plants that could be of economic value to U.S. farmers. American food in those days was only beginning to diversify from its endemic crops—of which there were few—into the vibrant landscape of fruits and vegetables we have today. Japan was one of many countries Fairchild visited, and it was there, in 1902, that he caught a glimpse of sakura.
Last month, I paid a visit to Yokohama, home of the first cherry blossom trees to officially enter the U.S. I had been researching Fairchild for several years and I wanted to see where the trees, one of his many foreign plant acquisitions for the U.S., originated. Just being in Japan, it was easy to see that sakura trees are as central to Japan as baseball is to America—they’re everywhere, almost universally adored, and at peak season, exciting to see.
I went, as Fairchild did, to the Yokohama Nursery Company, which was one of the first Japanese companies to commercialize the trees, sensing demand from other countries with a similar climate. “It was one of the proudest moments in our history,” Kazuo Ariyoshi, the company’s president, told me, referring to the golden era of exporting sakura. The blossoms would end up in Turkey, Australia, and France, sometimes taken by foreign travelers, sometimes given as gifts from Japanese officials. (That era has ended, and Ariyoshi’s company now focuses on things like melons, carrots, and lettuce.)
Fairchild first thought to send tree samples to California, where temperate land next to the Pacific resembled Japan. Yet when the samples arrived in San Francisco, they languished at the hands of botanical researchers who had no idea what they were. (See cherry blossom photos from the Your Shot photo community.)
A woman named Eliza Scidmore understood sakura, though. Scidmore was a Washington journalist whose brother was a U.S. consular officer in Japan. After each trip to visit him, she told everyone she could in Washington about the wonderful trees. But in a town of self-admiring men, no one gave the idea much weight. People asked, Why bother with cherry trees that didn’t actually produce cherries?
Fairchild was well aware of U.S. aversion to foreign crops. But he avoided this dead end by ordering 125 sakura trees for his own front yard in Chevy Chase, Maryland. The Yokohama nursery owner was so pleased to have an American customer they charged just 10 cents apiece. The New York Times later explained this pride, imagining how great America would feel if it could take one of it’s proudest symbols—maybe Plymouth Rock, the Declaration of Independence, or the Emancipation Proclamation—and place it in a foreign capital. “Can you imagine what a gift would mean?” the newspaper asked.
Seeing the trees on Fairchild’s property helped people in Washington understand their fluffy pink beauty, cherries or not. And in March of 1909, no one was more enchanted by them than Helen Taft, the new first lady. Her husband’s predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, spoke often about “beautifying” the country’s capital, then sloppy with mud from the lapping Potomac. Helen Taft believed the cherry blossoms were the answer. Her husband agreed. In addition to their beauty, President William Taft also sensed an opportunity to forge a diplomatic friendship with the Japanese.
But even then, the trees didn’t come easily. In the fall of 1909, when the mayor of Tokyo sent 2,000 young trees to Washington, they arrived barely alive, their roots cut too short and teeming with insects. Fearful of foreign pests, USDA entomologists burned them in a great bonfire on the National Mall. Only when Japan sent a second, bigger shipment of 3,020 trees, all tall and mature, did the trees make it into the ground.
Most of those original trees are gone. Sakura tend to survive about 25 years, 50 if they’re lucky, longer if it’s a miracle. Of the original 3,020, only two remain, grizzled and sagging, near the base of the Washington Monument next to a plaque commemorating the day, March 27, 1912, they were planted. Today there are 3,800 trees, according to Mike Litterst, a spokesman for the National Park Service. Most of the rest come from clones and cuttings of the original lot, replaced every so often so that the crowds, and their cameras, never have to wonder what Washington would be like without them.
Daniel Stone is a staff writer for National Geographic. His book on the life and adventures of plant hunter David Fairchild, and the exchange of the cherry blossom trees, will be published by Berkley/NAL (Penguin) in 2017. You can follow him on Twitter.