So, I took my wife to DC to view the Cherry Blossoms.  We were a bit early as they look like peak blooming will be late this week, but the phenomenon is not to be missed.  Spectacular!

Cherries have a special place in American History.  We’ve all heard the story of George Washington who as a boy is reported to have chopped down a cherry tree and told his dad the truth about it, in turn gaining the moral high ground that we should all aim for.

The story goes that when Washington was six years old, he received a hatchet as a gift, after which he promptly went and cut down his father’s favorite cherry tree. When his father found out about it, he was understandably angry and confronted his son, asking if he had done it, to which little George replied that yes, indeed, he had done it. And with those brave words, father’s anger melted away and he embraced his son, exclaiming that his honesty was worth more than a thousand trees.  It’s a nice story, but did it happen? Nobody knows for sure.

When Washington died in 1799, there was a great demand to learn more about our first the person of our First President.  Itinerant bookseller Mason Locke Weems, AKA Parson Weems, was more than willing to fulfill that need and in 1800 quickly wrote and published The Life of Washington which became a bestseller. 

As well as a publisher, Weems was also a minister and wanted to use this book to teach morality.  He naturally thought the best way to do that was to write myths about a national hero like George Washington.  Washington’s admission of guilt was proof that his public greatness was due to his private virtues.  The cherry tree example of a warm and generous relationship between father and son added strong emphasis to the character of the quickly-being-mythologized George Washington.

Very little was known about Washington’s relationship with his father, who had died when George was 11.  It seems that Weems got the story from an elderly woman who had been friends with the family. Since she chose to remain anonymous it is an unreliable source. This didn’t matter to Weems since the book and story had a good moral lesson (i.e. don’t lie) and sold very well.  Seems honesty is a subject Weems aspires to but not at the expense of profit. 

Of course, the cherry trees we see in DC are in no way related to George Washington.  These are Japanese Cherries and the planting of cherry trees in Washington DC originated in 1912 as a gift of friendship to the People of the United States from the People of Japan.

In Japan, the flowering cherry tree, or “Sakura,” is important for beauty of the cherry blossom which is an ancient symbol with rich meaning in Japanese culture and the tradition of celebrating the spring blooming of cherry trees in Japan is centuries old.  In America, our celebration of the Cherry Blossom is much more modern.  In 1885, Mrs. Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore approached the U.S. Army Superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds with a proposal that Japanese cherry trees be planted one day along the reclaimed Potomac waterfront.   At the time, the banks of the Potomac were nearer to the current site of the National Mall and all the land we see as the “tidal basin” (where Jefferson Memorial stands today) were flooded by the tides.  The hope was to reclaim this area both to clear the stench and mosquito breeding tidal mud flats but to also enhance the beauty of that side of the city.  It took over twenty-four years, to convince the city to accept the idea of Japanese cherry trees in Washington DC.

Eventually, Mrs Scidmore decided to try to raise the money required to purchase the cherry trees and then donate them to the city. She sent a note outlining her plan to the new First Lady, Helen Herron Taft.  Mrs. Taft had lived in Japan and was familiar with the beauty of the flowering cherry trees. Two days later the first lady responded.

The day after Mrs. Taft’s letter of April 7, the Japanese consul in New York asked whether Mrs. Taft would accept a donation two thousand trees to fill out the area. The trees were given in the name of the City of Tokyo.

The White House, Washington

April 7, 1909

Thank you very much for your suggestion about the cherry trees. I have taken the matter up and am promised the trees, but I thought perhaps it would be best to make an avenue of them, extending down to the turn in the road, as the other part is still too rough to do any planting. Of course, they could not reflect in the water, but the effect would be very lovely of the long avenue. Let me know what you think about this.

Sincerely yours,

Helen H. Taft

The trees were planted along the Potomac River from the site of the Lincoln Memorial southward toward East Potomac Park. To everyone’s dismay, an inspection team from the Department of Agriculture discovered that the trees were infested with insects and nematodes, and were diseased. To protect American growers, the department concluded that the trees must be destroyed.  The Secretary of State sent letters to the Japanese Ambassador expressing the deep regret of all concerned. All parties involved from Japan met the distressing news with determination and good will.

Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki and others suggested a second donation be made, and the Tokyo City Council authorized this plan. The number of trees had now increased to 3,020. The scions for these trees were taken from the famous collection along the bank of the Arakawa River in Adachi Ward, a suburb of Tokyo, and grafted onto specially selected understock produced in Itami City, Hyogo Prefecture.

In a gesture of gratitude for the cherry trees, in 1915 President Taft sent a gift of flowering dogwood trees to the people of Japan. Through an ongoing cycle of restoration and growth, the cherry trees continued to fulfill their role as a symbol and an agent of friendship.

If you have time over the next couple of weeks to visit DC, you will not be disappointed.  But don’t expect forgiveness if you chop one down!

Published by Michael Carver

My goal is to bring history alive through interactive portrayal of ordinary American life in the late 18th Century (1750—1799) My persona are: Journeyman Brewer; Cordwainer (leather tradesman but not cobbler), Statesman and Orator; Chandler (candle and soap maker); Gentleman Scientist; and, Soldier in either the British Regular Army, the Centennial Army, or one of the various Militia. Let me help you experience history 1st hand!

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