The cherry blossom trees that bloom so beautifully along the Potomac in Washington, D.C. are a huge and very deserving tourist attraction each spring. The story of these trees is that they were given to the U.S. by the Japanese government.
This is true, but the simplified explanation leaves out a really lovely detail: First Lady Helen Taft came up with this plan while in the White House. She saw the cherry blossoms in Japan when she traveled there. During her husband’s first year of the presidency, she asked the D.C. parks department to buy cherry trees to plant along the Tidal Basin.
Initially, the gardeners could only locate about 100 trees. When the Mayor of Tokyo heard about her request, however, he was thrilled by the compliment. He offered to send about two thousand trees to Washington, D.C.
The Tafts Explained
To understand how Helen Taft came up with this idea, it’s helpful to take a quick look back at the Tafts and their time:
William Howard Taft (1857-1930) became the 27th President of the United States, running at the suggestion of his Republican predecessor Teddy Roosevelt. Taft’s competition was Democratic candidate Charles Jennings Bryan, running for the presidency for a third time.
Taft and wife Helen and their family moved into the White House in 1909. Helen Herron Taft (called Nellie) was his hometown sweetheart. She was an active supporter of all the president did, and she and the children accompanied him on many overseas assignments.
Shortly after arriving in the White House, Helen Taft suffered a stroke. The president was devastated and wanted nothing more than to stay by Nellie’s bedside, but he was torn by the responsibilities of the presidency.
Helen was from a large family and several of her sisters soon arrived to help with her care. This permitted the president to return to work. The sisters remained by Helen’s side throughout her recovery, and one of them occasionally served as a hostess at the White House when the president needed additional help. This support system remained in the White House for almost a year until Helen’s health began to improve.
Helen Taft: World Traveler
William Howard Taft was an attorney. In his work life, he longed for few things more than a federal judgeship. However, he was well-respected by the men in government and for that reason was often called into service.
In 1900, President McKinley asked Taft to head the commission that was to put in place a civilian government in the Philippines.
Mrs. Taft and their three children—along with an entourage of other people who would work for Taft—embarked on a trip to the Philippines. They stopped frequently for supplies and were entertained by the host countries. [These travels were documented by Helen Taft in a delightful, beautifully written memoir, Recollections of Full Years (1914).]
Among the countries she visited was Japan in the springtime. She fell in love with the cherry blossom trees that were in full bloom during part of her visit. She also loved the tradition of garden parties enjoyed by the Japanese.
Helen Taft’s Recovery in the White House
In the White House, Helen Taft slowly began to recover from her stroke. She took an interest in the social events being planned for and around the White House, and she fondly remembered the beauty of the cherry blossom trees in Japan.
In the autumn of 1909, the First Lady suggested that cherry blossom trees be planted around the Tidal Basin. She was joined in this cause by Eliza Scidmore, the first female board member of the National Geographic Society, as well as Dr. David Fairchild of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who had arranged for many of these trees to be planted in his hometown of Chevy Chase, Maryland.
Trees Sent as Gift
When only about one hundred trees were located to plant in Washington that first year, the Mayor of Tokyo got involved. He was so flattered that Mrs. Taft wanted to bring this Japanese influence to the United States, that he offered to send two thousand young trees.
The gift had its bumps along the way. One batch of the trees arrived in D.C. and they were found to be sickly. Some of the parks department people suggested “burning all the trees” to prevent the spread of the disease. This almost started an international incident, but clearer heads prevailed. Horticulturists helped weed out the afflicted trees, and soon Japan was sending over replacements.
The official ceremony marking the planting of the Japanese trees along the Tidal Basic did not occur until March 27, 1912. On that day, First Lady Helen Taft and Viscountess Chinda, the wife of the Japanese ambassador, planted two trees from Japan on the north bank of the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park.
Helen Taft also loved the garden parties she attended in Japan and the Philippines. She longed to introduce that tradition as well. She began holding small garden gatherings at the White House.
Today the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival serves as a very large garden party. It stretches over a couple of weekends, and attracts about 1.5 million visitors to D.C. to enjoy the arrival of spring. The festival was first held in 1934 and became an annual rite. In 2020, the event was suspended for this year because of coronavirus.
Blossoms Will Appear
Even without a festival, the blossoms will appear. The National Park Service Bloom Watch predicts that the peak bloom days in 2020 will be March 21-24. If you happen to live in Washington or are driving through, you will be able to see the blossoms in their glory.
More Facts about Cherry Blossom Trees
- The blooms last about a week; the trees last for 30-40 years.
- There are approximately 3,750 cherry trees around the Tidal Basin. Most of the trees are Yoshino Cherry. They blossom primarily in various shades of pink.
- While pink is the best-known color of cherry blossoms, tree also come in white, and a tree like the Ukon cherry tree goes from greenish yellow blossoms to white before the blooms turn pink.
- Is Washington, D.C. the cherry blossom capital of the United States? Actually no. The city with the most cherry blossom trees is Macon, Georgia. Realtor William A. Fickling, Sr. (1903-1990) donated and had planted 180,000 Yoshino cherry trees to his hometown. Macon also sponsors a very popular cherry blossom festival.
Over the years, horticultural gifts have been exchanged between the two countries. In 1915, the United States presented flowering dogwood trees to the people of Japan.
In 1981, the U.S. served as a “preserve” for some types of the Japanese trees. After a flood in parts of Japan, Japanese horticulturists were devastated by having lost certain types of cherry trees. When the Parks department in the U.S. realized that some of those trees were growing in Washington, D.C., they presented the Japanese with cuttings from the species of trees they lost.
When Helen Taft mused about the trees she brought to the nation’s capital, she wrote in Recollections of Full Years: “I wonder if any of them will ever attain the growth of the ancient and dearly loved cherry trees of Japan.”
She would be very pleased.
You might also enjoy reading Johnny Appleseed Debunked.
Note: Helen Taft and the White House Cow
I originally became interested in Helen Taft when I wrote about the fact that before they moved into the White House, she insisted that a dairy cow be kept on the grounds. The White House had not had a dairy cow on the property for about 50 years. The simple explanation presented in most articles on the topic are that Mrs. Taft worried that there were no dairies sufficiently near the White House for milk deliveries.
In reading Mrs. Taft’s memoir, Recollections of Full Years, I learned there was much more meaning to her request for a cow in D.C. For the first years in the Philippines, there were no cows in the country. The Tafts were good sports and assured everyone that canned milk and condensed cream were “just as good as the real thing.”
But when one of their friends began importing cows from Australia, they asked that one be kept by the Palace where the Tafts lived. They were so thrilled to have fresh milk, that Helen Taft did not want to have to “do without” at the White House.
To read more about the Taft’s cow, click here.