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The Cherry Blossom Festival: Washington, DC Is In The Pink

Updated on February 27, 2015

It's Cherry Blossom Time In DC!

The cherry blossoms are blooming and every year several thousand tourists visit Washington, D.C. for the historic Cherry Blossom Festival. The Festival, scheduled for March 26 to April 10 at the height of cherry blossom bloom time, dates back to the early 1900s and has quite an interesting history. The first cherry trees planted along the Tidal Basin were actually gifts from Japan and were the brainchild of Eliza Scidmore, a photographer and writer, with assistance from President William Howard Taft's wife, Helen. Some people give Helen Taft all the credit for the beautification of the Tidal Basin, but the suggestion actually came from Scidmore who had visited Japan in 1885 and was amazed by the beauty of the delicate pink blossoms she saw there.

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Planting of the First Cherry Trees Along The Tidal Basin

Scidmore began campaigning heavily for the trees to be planted and first approached the Superintendent of Public Parks and Grounds in Washington, but was denied repeatedly. Scidmore decided to raise the money herself for the trees and wrote a letter to First Lady Taft offering to fund the trees. Mrs. Taft was very receptive to the idea since she had also visited Japan and seen the beautiful trees herself. She was also very involved with the beautification of the Potomac River, particularly an area called "The Speedway," which was basically a mud hole popular with car lovers of the day. Her thought was to have a beautiful park lined with cherry blossoms with a music grandstand where people could gather to hear concerts.

Eliza Scidmore, who lobbied for 24 years for the trees to be planted in Wasshington, D.C.
Eliza Scidmore, who lobbied for 24 years for the trees to be planted in Wasshington, D.C. | Source

A Gift From Japan

Hearing of the First Lady's efforts and in a show of great diplomacy, the mayor of Tokyo, Yukio Ozaki, donated 2000 trees to the project. However, when the trees arrived in the United States, they were insect-ridden and had to be destroyed. Not to be thwarted in his efforts to extend a helping hand to the First Lady, Ozaki then sent over 3000 trees which were planted all along the Potomac, around the "Speedway", which is now Independence Avenue, and around the White House. Mrs. Taft and the wife of the Japanese ambassador planted two cherry trees on March 27, 1912 as a symbolic gesture and as a precursor to the first Cherry Blossom Festival. Those two cherry trees are among the 200 still remaining of the original trees donated by Japan.

 Historic marker telling the story of the cherry trees at the site of the two trees planted by Mrs. Taft.
Historic marker telling the story of the cherry trees at the site of the two trees planted by Mrs. Taft. | Source

History of the Cherry Blossom In Japan

Cherry trees that actually bear fruit and the cherry tree which provides the beautiful blossoms, the sakura, are actually two different types of trees. The most common blossoming cherry tree in Washington is the yoshino which is one of the twelve types originally planted. The sakura dates back many centuries in Japanese history and was so popular that the Japanese gathered for their own festivals underneath the gorgeous blooms. They even had a name for the feasts, "Hanami." Hanamis are still observed in Japan today and have become even more popular throughout history. There are huge public viewings of the blossoms which begin blooming in some parts of Japan as early as January and others not until March.

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The Symbolism of the Cherry Blossom

The cherry blossom has many different meanings to different cultures. For the Chinese, it is symbolic of feminine power and sexuality. It is also is a very important symbol to the Japanese. The most moving symbolism is based on the fragility of the cherry blossom itself, how quickly and beautifully it blooms and then fades away. The blossoms, of course, represent life, how quickly it goes by, and how it is truly fragile. Cherry blossoms appear repeatedly in Japanese art and architecture. Kamikaze pilots painted them on the side of their planes to represent the brevity of their lives during WWII. The cherry blossom is even on the back of the Japanese yen, and as a new and growing trend, cherry blossom tattoos are being seen adorning the arms, backs, and ankles of women of many cultures.

The Tidal Basin Walk

This year there will be a symbolic walk around the Tidal Basin to commemorate the victims of the Japanese earthquake and to show the United States continued partnership with Japan. The walk called "Stand With Japan" will take place on March 24 from 6:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m. The organizers of the festival in Washington are urging visitors to give to the Red Cross relief effort.

It seems a fitting tribute to the Japanese people that this event is held under the cherry trees.

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