Springtime in Washington, D.C. kicks off every year with the city's famous Cherry Blossom Festival, when the fluffy pink cherry trees around the National Mall and Tidal Basin burst into bloom. Hundreds of thousands flock there to take in the beautiful flowers, making it one of Washington's most well-loved events. It's hard to imagine, but more than a century ago, this same area in D.C. stood naked without a cherry tree in site. David Fairchild, a food explorer with the United States Department of Agriculture, spearheaded an effort to landscape this area with cherry trees from Japan but encountered strong resistance from those who feared foreign species. Fairchild persevered and succeeded in bringing the cherry blossoms to the States, importing not only lovely trees but also the delightful Japanese custom of enjoying their annual bloom.
Born in Lansing, Michigan, in 1869, David Fairchild moved to Manhattan, Kansas, at age 10 when his father, George, became president of Kansas State Agricultural College. Through his father, David met many scientists who told tales of expeditions in far-off lands, which inspired the boy. As a young man, David studied botany and eventually moved to Washington, D.C. There he found his dream job with the U.S. government as a food explorer, traveling the world in search of new crops to introduce to the United States.
Driven by curiosity and fueled by optimism, he brought to the States many plants and fruits now taken for granted, such as mangoes from India, peaches from China, and avocados from Chile. They transformed the American kitchen, but one would transform the American capital. In 1902 Fairchild first encountered sakura, the flowering cherry trees of Japan. For centuries the Japanese have held picnics and parties every spring to view the blossoms in a custom called hanami. Enchanted by their beauty, Fairchild wanted to bring the trees back home.