Cherry Blossoms Brighten Washington

By Rebecca Shokrian
National Geographic News
April 5, 2002

As 700,000 visitors flock to see 3,750 cherry blossom trees blooming at the height of their glory, Washington, D.C., is having one of the best Cherry Blossom Festivals in the 90-year history of the event, according to officials.

Cherry blossom trees were a gift to the United States from Japan in 1912 to symbolize the friendship between the two countries. Many of the original trees are still flourishing and giving pleasure to thousands of people.

Since the end of March, the Tidal Basin, near the Jefferson Memorial, and the grounds of the Washington Monument on the National Mall have been framed in clusters of white and pink blossoms that are the city's biggest spring tourist attraction every year.

Despite concerns about a hefty decline in D.C. tourism since last fall, the number of visitors to the National Cherry Blossom Festival this spring "is actually expected to exceed the 700,000 expectation" said Donna Sneyd, a spokesperson for the committee that organizes the annual event. "I think people are coming in an almost patriotic sense. They are showing that they won't let the fear of September 11th steer them away from their nation's capital."

Little-Known History

While the blossoms are renowned worldwide for their beauty, the history of their arrival in the United States is a mystery to most people.

The first cherry blossom trees—known as Sakura in Japanese—were sent to Washington in 1909 as a gift, but had to be destroyed because they were found to be infested with bugs and disease. Three years later the mayor of Tokyo, Yukio Ozaki, sent a second batch, which grew to a stock of 3,020 trees representing 12 varieties.

On March 27, 1912, First Lady Helen Taft and the wife of the Japanese ambassador, Viscountess Chinda, planted the first two donated cherry blossom trees on the northern bank of the Tidal Basin. Over the next seven years, others were planted around the Tidal Basin.

Today, two varieties dominate the display: the Yoshino cherry blossom (Prunus xyedoensis) and the Kwanzan cherry blossom (Prunus serrulata Kwanzan).

The first official commemoration of the cherry blossom tree donation did not occur until 15 years later, when Washingtonian schoolchildren reenacted the event of the first tree planting.

In 1982 the circle of friendship was complete when Japanese horticulturists arrived in the United States to collect approximately 800 cuttings from the Yoshino trees at the Tidal Basin. The cuttings were obtained to replace trees lost to flooding and to preserve the genetic characteristics of the native trees in Japan.

The Cherry Blossom Festival was first celebrated in 1935, when several civic groups sponsored it, laying the groundwork for the event that is still celebrated today.

The festival has become so large that in 1985, a not-for-profit organization—National Cherry Blossom Festival Inc.—was created to coordinate the event and promote participation. This year alone, the number of sponsors for the event doubled.

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