George Hawthorne Scidmore was a career diplomat, serving assignments throughout the Asian Pacific between 1884 and 1922. Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore was as accomplished as her brother: American author and socialite, journalist and world traveler. She was the first female board member of the National Geographic Society.
Frequent visits with her brother led to a passionate interest in all things Japanese, most especially the Japanese cherry, Prunus serrulata, commonly known as the Sakura. The Japanese blossoming cherry tree. She called them “the most beautiful thing in the world”.
In January 1900, President William McKinley summoned Federal judge William Howard Taft to Washington, for a meeting.
Taft hoped 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. Judge Taft was bound for the Pacific, to head up a commission to organize civilian self-government in the island nation.
While the future President 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 a gift from the city of Tokyo to the government of the United States. A grove of Japanese cherry trees,
For Eliza Scidmore, it was a dream some 34 years, in the making. The people and the government of Japan would present this gift to the government and the people, of the United States. It was Eliza Scidmore who raised the money, to make it all 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 Yoshino cherry trees on the bank of the Potomac River, near the Jefferson memorial.
Those two ladies planted the first two trees, in a formal ceremony. By the time the workmen were through, there would be thousands of them.
This was the second such effort. 2,000 trees had arrived in January 1910, but these had not survived the journey. So it was a private Japanese citizen, donated the funds to transport this new batch of trees.
3,020 specimens were taken from the bank of the Arakawa River in the Adachi Ward suburb of Tokyo, to be planted along the Potomac River Basin and White House grounds.
The beautiful March blossoms were overwhelmingly popular with visitors to the Washington Mall. In 1934, city commissioners sponsored a three-day celebration of the blossoming cherry trees, which grew into the annual Cherry Blossom Festival.
During World war II, 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 which grace the Arakawa River today are entirely composed from the Potomac collection, or some combination of American and native stock. After the cataclysm of war in the Pacific, I’m not sure it matters. That might even be the whole point.