• Mary Evans Seeley

The First Lady Plants a Tree

Our First President George Washington is said to have chopped down a cherry tree as a young man. In 1912, First Lady Helen Taft planted the first of 3000 cherry blossom trees given to Washington DC from the Mayor of Tokyo.

The "Cherry Blossom Festival" is held every year from March to April in Washington DC.

Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, an American writer, photographer and geographer, was an early proponent of planting Japanese cherry trees along the Potomac River. After returning from her first trip to Japan in 1885, she approached the US Army Superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds with the idea of planting Cherry trees along the riverfront. As the first female member of the National Geographic Society, she was rebuffed, but continued to propose the idea to to very Superintendent for the next 24 years.

In 1906, David Fairchild imported 1000 cherry trees from Japan and planted then on his property in Chevy Case, Maryland. Pleased with the results, the following year promoted planting Japanese flowering cherry trees in the Washington area. In 1908 Fairchild donated cherry saplings to every school to plant on its grounds in observance of Arbor Day. In his Arbor Day speech, that Scidmore attended, Fairchild proposed that the Tidal Basin be turned into a "Field of Cherries."

In 1909, Scidmore decided to raise money and donate cherry trees to the district. On April 5, she wrote to First Lady Helen Taft detailing her plans. Two days later, Mrs. Taft agreed to the overall idea, but suggested some minor changes to the layout of the trees around the Tidal Basin.

The Japanese consul learned about the plan and offered to donate 2000 cherry trees to the US. This gift arrived in D.C. on January 6, 1910. Upon inspection, the Department of Agriculture discovered the trees to be infested with insects. President Taft ordered the trees to be burned on January 28. A letter of regret was sent to the Japanese Ambassador. In response to the news, the Mayor of Tokyo offered another donation of 3000 trees, taken from the lineage of a famous group of trees along the Arakawa River in Tokyo. Actually 3020 trees arrived in Washington D.C. on March 26, 1912.

In a ceremony the following day, First Lady Helen Taft and the wife of the Japanese ambassador, planted the first two of these trees on the north bank of the Tidal Basin in West Potamac Park. After the ceremony, Mrs. Taft presented a bouquet of American Beauty Roses to her guest, Viscountess Chinda. These two trees still stand, just east of today's Martin Luther King, Jr Memorial, marked by a small plague. By 1915, the United States reciprocated with a gift of flowering dogwood trees to the people of Japan.

In 1935, the first "Cherry Blossom Festival" was held under joint sponsorship of numerous community groups. An annual event, the festival runs from March to April, commemorating the gift of 3000 cherry trees from the Mayor of Tokyo to the United States in 1912, during the administration of William Howard Taft and his wife, Helen "Nellie" Taft (1909-1930).

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