Each spring, as the Japanese cherry trees bloom in Potomac Park and around the Tidal Basin, something tugs at our memories. Didn’t the National Geographic Society have something to do with getting those trees here? Wasn’t Eliza Scidmore, the first woman on our board of trustees, somehow involved?
The Society itself had little to do with establishing the flowering cherries in Washington. But Eliza Scidmore did, and she was joined by two other prominent Washingtonians – including First Lady Helen Taft – who were also closely associated with the Society. Here is their story.
The “Most Beautiful Thing in the World…”
In 1885, when Scidmore – an adventurous journalist who was still in her twenties – made her first trip to Japan, she experienced something like rapture. April had arrived there, bringing the sakura, the flowering cherry trees, to full bloom, and wherever she went, she was swept up in the spectacle. In Washington, her home between travels, flowering cherries stood here and there in the shady streets and squares. But the American capital was nothing like Japan, where, as she later wrote, “…vistas of flowery trees, lofty and wide-spreading as vast oaks and elms, and through their snowy branches shine thousands of other snowy branches.”
After returning to Washington, Scidmore could not help but recall those cherry blossoms when confronted by the mudfields on the Potomac. The river in those days nearly lapped at the foot of the Washington Monument, and civic authorities were engaged in a decades-long project to drain the malarial swamps, reclaim the marshes, and channel the tides into a tidal basin. But the new land being created was raw and ugly. In Scidmore’s opinion, as she showed her photographs of blossoming cherries to impatient officials, those “dump heaps” might as well be covered with the most beautiful thing in the world as with anything else.
But year after year, Scidmore’s pitch for the cherry trees continued to fall on deaf ears. With each change of administration she made the same approach and got the same response. “Cherry trees?” one official exclaimed. “Boys would climb the trees and get the cherries and break all the branches!” When he was informed that these trees did not bear edible fruit, he responded: “What! No cherries! What good is that sort of cherry tree!”
Eventually Scidmore’s attention turned to other things. In 1890 she joined the newly-formed National Geographic Society. Friendly with the Society’s leading families, the Hubbards and the Bells, she grew active in the organization, becoming the only woman on its board of managers while contributing articles, photographs, and editing expertise to its small journal, the National Geographic magazine— that is, when she wasn’t busy traveling and writing books. Taking time for leisure was never Eliza Scidmore’s strong suit.
Meanwhile, around the turn of the century, a new effort was undertaken to “beautify” the National Capital. Congress soon designated the raw, reclaimed land along the river as the new Potomac Park. Many possibilities were put forward as to its development and use including bathing beaches, polo grounds, bridle paths, and bicycle tracks. Someone proposed a long perimeter road called a “Speedway” for horseless carriages to chug around. When fully developed and linked up with the Mall and Rock Creek Park, the whole ensemble should rival anything the capitals of Europe might offer.
There seemed little room for flowering cherry trees.
A New Champion for the Cherry Trees
But Scidmore’s cause was about to get a new champion, one with some serious clout: Helen Taft, or “Nellie” as she was known, the wife of William Howard Taft, president of the United States.
Nellie Taft was a commanding figure. Accomplished, intelligent, and well-traveled, Taft had used her energy and ambition into helping her husband become President. With that goal achieved, Taft threw her considerable energies into redecorating the White House and making Washington more beautiful.
Scidmore knew Taft from the Far East circuit and probably from soirées at the Bells as well. She knew that the First Lady had loved the flowering cherries of Japan. So one Saturday morning in April of 1909 she wrote the First Lady a note soliciting her help in establishing in Potomac Park a sakura-michi, or “cherry trail” like the one in Tokyo’s Mukojima Park, lined for two miles with rows of the splendid trees.
The First Lady replied enthusiastically. Suddenly, after years of delay, things were beginning to fall into place. Dr. Jokichi Takamine, a noted Japanese chemist, happened to be visiting Washington. When he heard of the plan, he generously offered to personally donate 2,000 trees from his homeland. Then the mayor of Tokyo stepped in and offered the trees in the name of his great city “to show its friendly sentiments towards its sister Capital City.” Newspapers got hold of the story, and the U.S. Secretary of State met with the Japanese Ambassador to discuss the significance of such a gift.
A Diplomatic Fiasco
Toward the end of year, 2,000 fairly large cherry trees were uprooted from around Tokyo, loaded onto a freighter, and shipped across the Pacific to Seattle. The trees arrived in Washington in January 1910. But when quarantine authorities opened the crates and peered inside, they found that the trees were full of fungus and insect pests. Not long afterward, all the trees were burned.
David Fairchild was mortified. As head of the Agriculture Department’s new Office of Plant Introduction, he had worked with Scidmore, lobbying for the cherry trees, and painstakingly coordinating their delivery. He knew that the trees had been too large, the roots cut too close, and they likely would not have survived, but it was horrifying to see his efforts go up in flames. The Japanese perception of insult was finely calibrated, and the mayor of Tokyo reportedly made the sarcastic quip, “Oh, I believe your first president set the example of destroying cherry trees, didn’t he?” It was an inauspicious start for the proposed sakura-michi.
Diplomatic regrets were tendered, embarrassments smoothed over, and on February 2, 1912, the mayor of Tokyo wrote to Washington’s park superintendent, announcing he was sending another 3,000 cherry trees. It gave him, he stated, “boundless pleasure to think that [they] may in a measure add to the embellishment of your magnificent capital.” Over a year had gone into their selection and care.
The trees arrived in Washington on March 26. They passed through quarantine and the very next day a small group assembled in West Potomac Park for a quiet tree planting ceremony. The Japanese Ambassador and his wife were joined by the Washington parks’ superintendent and Miss Eliza Scidmore. In their midst, wrapped against the spring chill, stood Nellie Taft. She was still recovering from a stroke, but she was able to plant the first sapling herself. In the ensuing weeks, the rest of the cherries were set around the Tidal Basin, along Potomac Drive (the renamed Speedway, now Independence Avenue), on the White House grounds, and in other parts of the city.
Rites of Spring
By the spring of 1915 the small trees, wreathed in bloom, were breathtaking. All Washington was turning out to see them, the newspapers exclaimed. Potomac Drive, it was soon said, was the capital’s equivalent of the Champs Elysée.
With each returning spring the trees blossomed anew. Yet Eliza Scidmore never saw them in their mature glory. By that point, she was spending most of her time abroad, and after 1924, when Congress passed a law banning Japanese immigration, she quit the U.S. for good and moved to Geneva, where she lived out her declining years, dying on November 3, 1928. Her ashes were interred on a cherry-crowned bluff, called the Foreigners Cemetery, in Yokohama.
By then a contented William Howard Taft had become Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. At least four times a year he heaved his happy bulk up the front steps of the National Geographic Society to attend board meetings, where he might greet his fellow trustee, the gray and increasingly stooped David Fairchild. Taft wrote articles for National Geographic magazine, 13 in all. He sat for photographic portraits, looking large and benign while beside him Nellie stood frail, white-haired, and defiant. Each spring, if she chanced to be away, he faithfully reported on the blooming of her beloved cherry trees.
Taft passed away in March 1930, but Nellie lived for another 13 years, dying in the spring of 1943 – just long enough to see the blossoms come and go one final time. No doubt she would have been pleased to know that her cherry trees have become a rite of spring for us Washingtonians – more than 100 years after she planted that first sapling.