Cherry Blossom Time in Washington, D.C.


By Carolyn M. Johnson


Each spring, groves of blooming pink and white cherry blossom trees flourish in a landscape identified as the feature landmark of the United States capital city of Washington, D.C.

The yearly Cherry Blossom Festival starts at the end of March, coinciding with the first blossoming of the trees. This seventy-five year old festival started in 1927 when school children re-enacted the First Lady’s plantings, followed by a three- day celebration in 1934. It officially became a festival in 1935, eventually growing to five weeks in 2012. The festival features many multi-cultural and recreational events, including concerts, a parade, and the crowning of a festival queen; with emphasis on Japanese and Japanese-American culture. Daily highlights include a dinner-time cruise around the city and a variety of free guided walking tours with park rangers. The night features a Japanese lantern-lighting ceremony and lantern-lit walk.

Our family vacations were spent in and around Washington, D.C. With a little brownie camera in hand, I photographed many attractions. We went to visit family members living there and the cherry blossom trees were among my favourite subjects to photograph.


Opposite: Children by a blossoming cherry tree, looking at the Washington monument framed within a group of trees.  Photo: courtesy National Cherry Blossom Festival


The blossoming of life symbolized in these trees echoes what's traditionally associated with them in Japan, the trees' place of origin. Thanks to the following people, trees encompass the city: U.S. First Lady Helen Herron Taft in 1912; dedicated U.S. citizen Eliza Scidmore; Japanese chemist Dr. Jokichi Takamin;  Mr. Midzuno, Japanese consul in New York; and Yuzio Ozaki,Tokyo mayor.

A spectacle to behold, the cherry blossom trees may bloom as early as the middle of March. In Potomac Park, two Yoshino cherry blossom trees planted by Mrs. Taft and Viscountess Chinda, the Japanese ambassador's wife, still stand. Many of these trees are also found in an avenue in the park’s Tidal Basin area in the west and at Hains Point in the east.

Other locations to view these beautiful trees include Anacostia Park, the National Arboretum, and the grounds of the Washington Monument, honoring the first U.S. president, George Washington. Botanically, cherry blossom trees are known to gardeners as sakura and the cherry fruit is called sakuranbo. Among the dozen varieties of cherry blossom trees represented, in addition to the Yoshino variety, there is the Afterglow Cherry.



Other favored scenes show blooming cherry blossom trees reflected in the Potomac River and framing the rectangular Lincoln Memorial building honoring the sixteenth U.S. president, Abraham Lincoln. The beautiful trees also frame the domed memorial commemorating Thomas Jefferson, the second U.S. president. A day of discovery leads tourists to other lesser-known sites where the D.C. cherry blossom trees bloom. Another variety, the Gyoiko, is planted on the White House grounds for presidential families to enjoy.

March 27, 2012, is the one hundred anniversary of when the first cherry blossom trees were planted in Washington, D.C.  Part of this celebration will be offering several kinds of cherry trees for people to plant in their own backyards. One of the favorites is the Yoshino, which can grow in the northern New York zone where I live.

This legacy from Mrs. Taft and Eliza Scidmore, started with Eliza's visit to her brother in Japan, where she was introduced to cherry blossom trees. For more than twenty years she tried to convince D.C. park supervisors to plant them, but they kept rejecting her idea.

Then Helen Taft became the U.S.A.’s First Lady. During her travels, accompanying her husband to wherever his international jobs were located, Helen visited Japan and discovered cherry blossom trees. Eliza wrote to her. Mrs. Taft wanted to create what is now the D.C.'s Potomac Park, along the river with that name, and Ms. Scidmore's idea inspired her. Helen planned to have the trees planted the way trees were growing in Luneta Park in Manila, the Philippines. One of Mrs. Taft’s destinations during her travels, she enjoyed walking with her three children through an avenue of trees near a waterway.

Replacing the swamp, bleak roadway, and old tracks, Washington D.C.’s cherry blossom trees, like Luneta’s,  became a tree-lined area on the banks of a waterway now providing ready scenes to photograph and remember vividly.

Mrs. Taft and Viscountess Chinda took part in a ceremony to celebrate the first plantings. The two trees planted by the First Lady and Viscountess still stand on the northern bank of the Tidal Basin. In 1965 a re-enactment of the initial planting featured First Lady "Lady Bird" Johnson who dedicated her life to beautifying and protecting the environment, especially with wild flowers. Mrs. Ryuji Takeuchi, the Japanese ambassador's wife, accompanied her.

In 1997, and 2002 through 2005, cuttings were taken from what remained of the original group of trees. The National Arboretum propagates them to ensure the continuation of the original group and to continue to replenish the grove with genetic parts grown from the first trees. The National Arbor Day Foundation offers cherry blossom trees for planting in backyards.

This time next year a little cherry blossom tree reminding me of my childhood visits to the cherry blossom city may be blooming in my yard. What a surprise that would be!

Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia enjoy cherry blossoms by Chris Yeager. First Lady (Lady Bird) Johnson in 1965 re-enacting original planting



Clusters of pink cherry blossoms on a tree








Japanese-Americans in Philadelphia at time of Cherry Blossom Festival

some girls in traditional dress as they view cherry blossoms

Japanese women (apprentice geisha) in traditional costume in park (primary duties of geisha: dancer, perform tea ceremony)

and Japanese dancers in costume with trees in background on a stage

Miss America 2008 at Cherry Blossom Festival and