Eliza Scidmore was an American journalist, world traveler, author and socialite. The first female board member of the National Geographic Society, her brother was a career diplomat, who served 38 years in the Asian Pacific. Frequent visits led to a passionate interest in all things Japanese, most especially the ‘Sakura’, the Japanese blossoming cherry tree, which she called “the most beautiful thing in the world”.
In January 1900, Federal judge William Howard Taft was summoned to Washington, to meet with the President. He hoped it was to discuss a Supreme Court appointment, but it wasn’t meant to be. One day judge Taft would get his wish, becoming the only man in United States history to serve both as President, and as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. For now, the American war in the Philippines was ongoing. Taft would head up the commission to organize civilian self-government in the island nation.
While the future President Taft labored in the Philippines, Helen Herron Taft took up residence in Japan, where she came to appreciate the beauty of the native cherry trees.
Years later the Japanese Consul in New York learned of the First Lady’s interest in the Sakura, and suggested the city of Tokyo make a gift of Cherry trees, to the government of the United States.
For Eliza Scidmore, it was a dream 34 years in the making. It was she who raised the money to make it happen.
On March 27, 1912, the Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador to the United States joined First Lady Helen Taft, in planting two Japanese Yoshina cherry trees on the bank of the Potomac River, near the Jefferson memorial. The two were planted in a formal ceremony, the first of 3,020 trees.
It was the second such effort. 2,000 trees had arrived from Japan two years earlier, in January 1910, but they had fallen prey to disease along their journey. A private Japanese citizen donated the funds to transport a new batch of trees. The 3,020 were taken from the bank of the Arakawa River in the Adachi Ward suburb of Tokyo, to be planted along the Potomac River Basin, East Potomac Park, and the White House grounds.
The blossoming trees were overwhelmingly popular with visitors to the Washington Mall. In 1934 city commissioners sponsored a three-day celebration of the late March blossoming cherry trees, which grew into the annual Cherry Blossom Festival.
During WWII, aerial bombardment laid waste to Tokyo and its surrounding suburbs. After the war, cuttings from the cherry trees of Washington were sent back to Japan, to restore the Tokyo collection.
It’s not clear to me, if the trees along the Arakawa River today are entirely from the Potomac collection, or some combination of American and native stock. After the conflagration that was the war in the Pacific, I’m not sure it matters. It may even be the whole point.
Cherry Trees along the Arakawa