Splendor in the Grass
A woman rests among the cherry blossoms on the south side of the Tidal Basin in an undated photo.
The woman who introduced the word tsunami into the English lexicon was also the first to suggest that Japanese cherry trees—which bloom beautifully, but bear little fruit—could be used to spruce up a derelict section of Washington, D.C.
Her name was Eliza Scidmore, and she was a unique woman for her time. Not only was she one of the few female writers and photographers for National Geographic in the late 1800s and early 1900s, she was also the first woman on the National Geographic Society’s Board of Managers. She never married, and traveled widely. And she loved Japan. (Read the 1896 National Geographic article in which she introduced the word tsunami.)
When Scidmore first visited the country in 1885, she was mesmerized by the throngs of cherry blossom spectators in Tokyo’s Uyeno Park. She suggested to U.S. officials that the trees could be planted near the Washington Monument, along the Potomac River and the Tidal Basin, both to improve the neglected area and to serve as “a perpetual reminder of the friendship of the two peoples.”
Her proposition wasn’t taken up until decades later, when Helen Taft decided that she’d like to see cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin, too. In 1912, the first Japanese cherry trees were planted in Washington. (Read about how they got there.)
Since then, the National Cherry Blossom Festival has become an annual springtime event, drawing over a million visitors each year. You’ll likely see a lot of photos from this year’s “peak bloom”—but first, take a look at these classic photos from our archives.
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