How DC’s cherry blossoms are a living valentine from Japan

In 1912, Japan gave the U.S. 6,000 cherry trees. Today, the National Cherry Blossom Festival honors that gift of friendship

Every spring, Washington, D.C. trades out its red, white and blue for pastel pink.

Cherry trees dotted throughout the nation’s capital burst into blooms, surrounding the city monuments and streets with clouds of whisper-pink blossoms.

"It is a time where Washington, D.C. is in bloom, not just with the trees, but with the enthusiasm and excitement and the sense of hope and renewal," said Diana Mayhew, president and CEO of the National Cherry Blossom Festival.

Celebrated each year by the National Cherry Blossom Festival, this stunning showcase of spring is actually a living valentine — one given from Japan to the United States over a century ago and continues to thrive today.

Floral diplomacy

"The cherry blossom trees are one of the greatest gifts that any country has ever given to the United States," said Ambassador John Malott, advisor to the National Cherry Blossom Festival and past president of the Japan America Society of Washington, D.C.

According to Malott, the movement to bring cherry trees to the nation’s capital began in the late 19th century and involved a few key players.

One of whom was Eliza Scidmore, a dispatch for National Geographic who traveled to Japan in 1885 and fell in love with the country’s cherry trees.

"For 25 years, she ran a one-woman campaign, writing to almost anybody who could read to say, ‘We ought to plant these beautiful cherry blossom trees in Washington’," Malott said.

Scidmore’s campaign caught the ear of an important ally: First Lady Helen Taft.

According to Malott, in 1910 Taft ordered the Army — as the National Park Service didn’t yet exist — to plant Japanese cherry trees in the nation’s capital. This batch of trees came from Pennsylvania and only numbered about 80 or 90.

Then, another key player came to the fore: Japanese biochemist Jokichi Takamine.  

"He's the man who isolated adrenaline, which we use today as epinephrine, the EpiPen," Malott said.

"He lived in New York, and he was kind of a bridge between Japan and the United States. He thought it would be a wonderful thing for U.S.-Japan relations to bring the symbol of Japan, the cherry blossom trees, to America."

So, Takamine worked with the Japanese to give 6,000 Yoshino cherry trees to the United States.

After an initial shipment of trees in 1910 that had to be destroyed due to an infestation, the final batch of cherry trees arrived to the U.S. in 1912. (The U.S. in turn gave Japan flowering dogwood trees, which are native to North America)

According to Malott, the trees were evenly divided between New York and Washington, D.C. The latter planted its share of trees around the Tidal Basin with First Lady Taft and Viscountess Iwa Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador, planting the first two trees together.

Ever since, the trees at the nation’s capital have risen to stardom.

"The reason our trees are so famous and so spectacular, I think, is because they're all in one place," Malott said. "There's nowhere else in the world where you can stand in one location and see 3,000 cherry blossom trees at the same time."

"Our trees are all together, and I think that is why it is such a magnificent site for everyone to see."

A festival in bloom

The National Cherry Blossom Festival commemorates this exchange between what were two budding superpowers in the early 20th century.

"Who would have thought 110 years ago that this very important gift of U.S.-Japan relationship and friendship would become one of the greatest celebrations of spring in the world?" Mayhew said.

Like the cherry trees, the festival has bloomed since it was first hosted in 1927. According to Mayhew, the festival grew from initially only lasting a few days to now being four weeks long.

"We host it all over the city and the region with the Tidal Basin and those beautiful trees as the center point," she said, adding that the festival now includes 16 days of a stage and live performances.

Shows, parades, costumes and more — often highlighting Japanese culture — are splashed with shades of pink in honor of the cherry trees.

Honoring the history

The cherry blossoms and the National Cherry Blossom Festival they inspired have become synonymous with springtime.

But the pink petals also serve as a reminder of the relationship between Japan and the U.S. many years ago.

"We continue to honor the history," Mayhew said. "We continue to ensure that we remember where this gift came from and the fact that it's an example of peace and international friendship."

Both on the world stage and at home in the nation’s capital, the trees have certainly made their mark.

"There are many symbols in Washington, D.C. — we have the Capitol, the White House, the memorials, the shrines, but all of those symbols are buildings. They're made out of marble, all their statues are bronze or what have you," Malott said. "But the cherry blossom trees that the Japanese gave us are the only living symbol of Washington, D.C."

"And no matter what happens — whether we have a tragedy, whether we have a pandemic — the cherry blossom trees are always there for us, and they come back to us in all their beauty every spring."