This story first published in spring 2018 to mark Washington, D.C.'s world famous Cherry Blossom Festival. To support the health practice of social distancing due to the outbreak of COVID-19, spectators can safely view the 2020 blossoms from the Bloom Cam, a live feed from the National Mall.
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.
A Food Explorer is Born
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.
After marrying in 1905, David Fairchild and his bride, Marian, lived on a 10-acre property just outside of Chevy Chase, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. There Fairchild planted his favorite plants from his travels, but all Marian wanted were the Japanese cherry trees, which she referred to simply as “cherry blossoms.”
Fairchild ordered 125 of them from the Yokohama Nursery Company in Yokohama. The nursery owner, a man named Uhei Suzuki, was so pleased to hear from Fairchild—and to have an American customer—that he nearly gave away the trees for free, just 10 cents apiece.In the spring of 1906 Fairchild’s imported trees bloomed for the first time, and word of the pink blossoms brought so many onlookers to their home that Fairchild ordered 300 more as a gift to the city of Chevy Chase.
A Capital Fixer-Upper
The Fairchilds’ front yard may have looked gorgeous, but Washington, D.C., wasn’t terribly pretty. A nation’s capital is symbolic of its stability and aspirations—a notion that Teddy Roosevelt supported when he urged Congress to transform the raw land around the Washington Monument into a park with fields, paths for walking and bicycling, and a separate road for automobiles to pass at greater speed. This area would come to be called the speedway, and many thought the flowering cherry trees could lend the Tidal Basin an elegant visage.
In late March 1908 Fairchild gave a series of lectures in the D.C. area. He described his travels and recalled his first view of the sakura in Japan. He ended each lecture by displaying a photograph of the unsightly speedway near the Washington Monument. What an excellent place, he mused, to plant cherry blossom trees. Shortly after, in the Washington Star, Fairchild’s thought was given front‑page treatment. If the trees were planted soon around the Tidal Basin’s speedway, they could bloom the following spring; and not long after, the newspaper reported, “Washington would one day be famous for its flowering cherry trees.”
In 1909 the idea of bringing cherry trees to D.C. was gaining traction, and America’s new first lady, Helen Taft, was an advocate. While Mrs. Taft marveled over their beauty, her husband, President William Howard Taft, saw a diplomatic tool to build up international relations with Japan, a nation he had visited in 1905 as secretary of war.
Now motivated to smooth over relations, Taft quickly realized that the cherry trees could be the perfect way to quell past antagonisms. To Japan, it was an opportunity to show off a beautiful piece of itself in America’s capital. Japanese officials also enjoyed the tacit admission that despite America’s larger size, population, and economy, the countries were, in a way, equals. So when the then mayor of Tokyo, Yukio Ozaki, was tasked with finding the 300 finest cherry blossom trees in the city to be uprooted and shipped to America, it became his top priority.
Fairchild brokered the initial deal, but the plan for 300 trees ballooned into 2,000. Tokyo’s mayor selected so many trees that the steamer sailing across the Pacific was overflowing. To make room, the tree roots were cut.
Cautious or Killjoy?
In December 1909 the trees reached Seattle. Port workers packed them onto temperature‑-controlled railcars and cleared the track ahead for the 13‑day trip to Washington, D.C. Excitement began to build, but there was at least one person who was not excited about the cherry trees: Charles Marlatt. Head of the Division of Entomology at the USDA, Marlatt believed that introducing foreign species could be disastrous. He realized that diseases and insects could spread quickly over large distances and wipe out entire industries. In the first few years of the 20th century, Marlatt tried to convince others that bringing in new nursery stock also brought in pests, weeds, and diseases.
Fairchild saw little reason to worry. Hundreds of sakura had already been safely planted in the United States, most on his personal orders. While Fairchild had helped generate support and excitement for the exchange, Marlatt visited government officials, including the State Department, to caution of the dangers. Secretary of State Philander Knox believed the diplomatic benefits outweighed any biological risks, but to be safe Knox took Marlatt’s warning to President Taft anyway.
The prospect of catastrophe did give Taft some pause. He ordered the trees inspected at the garden storehouse near the Washington Monument. Fairchild was asked to complete the initial inspection, and Marlatt insisted on being present too. When the two pried open a crate, Fairchild’s first thought was that the trees looked stressed; their short roots had left them vulnerable to corrosion on the month-long voyage from Japan. Fairchild believed they could be salvaged. Perhaps the tops could be pruned to reduce stress and allow the trees to recover from the trauma of transport.
The Japanese had sent mature trees for they would bear vibrant blossoms the fastest, but their roots concerned Marlatt. When he closely examined them, Marlatt noted “serious infestations.” The roots were plagued with root gall, two kinds of scale, a new species of borer, and six other dangerous insects. Marlatt could make out the Chinese Diaspis, a white scale insect known to kill trees by ruthlessly feeding on fruit. He spotted the wood‑boring lepidopterous larvae that survive by gnawing on trees’ woody insides. And there was the San Jose scale, which Marlatt noted, despite its name, originated somewhere in China.
Fairchild agreed with Marlatt that the trees were faulty, but he was worried most about how to tell the president. And that America, which had already rejected so much about Japan, would also have to reject its trees, the symbol of friendship in a fraught diplomatic relationship.
There was no delicate way to handle it. Marlatt’s report about the infestations gave Taft little choice, and on January 28, 1910, the president ordered the trees burned. Everyone familiar with Japan’s sharpened sense of cultural pride braced for Tokyo’s reaction, and the likelihood that America’s attempt to bridge relations with the Japanese had been sullied, perhaps forever. As Marlatt and his team propped the trees together like a teepee, someone invited reporters to watch the fire. A news item appeared on the front page of the next day’s New York Times. The Washington Post ran a two‑page article about foreign plant danger. See? Marlatt and his henchmen effectively told the public: Thank goodness we were on the case.
Second Time Around
Yukio Ozaki, the mayor of Tokyo, was visiting Washington to witness the reception of Japan’s prized symbol when word got out about the bonfire. Shortly after, Ozaki received Fairchild in his hotel. Fairchild had come to apologize, or in a less dignified way, to grovel. But Ozaki had a different reaction than anyone expected, illuminating just how little American leaders understood Japan. In reality, Fairchild’s apologies were dwarfed by Ozaki’s. While Washington cringed at burning a gift, Tokyo apparently viewed the problem as having given a faulty present. “We are more satisfied that you dealt with [the trees] as you did, for it would have pained us endlessly to have them remain a permanent source of trouble,” Ozaki explained.
And if President Taft would still entertain the exchange, Ozaki said, Japan would like to send over another shipment of trees immediately. Better trees this time, packed by experts. Mayor Ozaki’s wife, in a letter to Helen Taft, apologized again for the mishap and then characterized the second shipment of trees as a “memorial of national friendship between the U.S. and Japan.”
Gardeners and chemists from several of Japan’s islands were brought to Tokyo to select another batch of sakura. Three thousand twenty trees for Washington were selected, and to hold them, a bigger, faster boat to cross the Pacific. The trees were raised in virgin sod, and their roots wrapped in damp moss. The trees were fumigated twice with hydrocyanic acid gas to asphyxiate any insects and then placed in cold storage to slow the trees’ metabolism.
Marlatt wasn’t pleased upon hearing of a second shipment. But he considered it a small victory that the first shipment, with its faults on display to the public, had proved that biological imports couldn’t be left to chance. Fairchild was encouraged by the arrival of the second shipment of more than 3,000 trees and the verdict, after they received a “minute and careful examination,” that the trees were clean, young, and healthy.
On March 27, 1912, Mrs. Taft broke dirt during a private ceremony in West Potomac Park near the banks of the Potomac River. The wife of the Japanese ambassador was invited to plant the second tree. Fairchild took a shovel not long after and participated in the event. It took only two springs for the trees to become universally adored by the American public, at least enough for the U.S. government to reciprocate and send Japan a gift in return. Officials decided to offer Japan a shipment of flowering dogwoods, native to the United States, with bright white blooms.
Meanwhile, the cherry blossoms in Washington have endured for over a hundred years, each tree replaced by clones and cuttings every quarter century to keep them spry. As the trees grew, so did a cottage industry around them: gardeners, a public relations team, and weather monitoring officials to forecast “peak bloom”—an occasion around which tourists would be encouraged to plan their visits. David Fairchild introduced the Japanese tradition to the U.S. capital, where it has taken root and blossomed for many springs to come.