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The Cherry Trees of Washington, DC

Updated on June 14, 2012
The Jefferson Memorial
The Jefferson Memorial
The Tidal Basin
The Tidal Basin
Metro 29 Diner
Metro 29 Diner
A Table at Metro 29
A Table at Metro 29

The Jefferson Memorial, Tidal Basin and the Cherry Trees

The History

Spring has come to the nations' capital and with it the annual blooming of the Cherry Trees. This year is the 100th anniversary of the gifting of the trees by the city of Tokyo to its' sister city of Washington, DC.

The setting for the trees is on land forming a semi-circle around the Tidal Basin and was constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers. A massive amount of river bottom was dredged from the Potomac River after a huge flood that covered the National Mall in 1881.

The land is a perfect backdrop for the trees, the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument. The inspiration for the buildings and memorials of this era were clearly influenced by Chicago's Columbian Exposition in 1893 popularly known as the 'City of Light'. Washington, DC was an embarrassing backwater swamp in the late 1800's and not on par with a special capital city that a great emerging nation deserved. In that light a number of prominent architects took it upon themselves to develop plans and building projects that would turn Washington in the 'White City'. It was also during this time that the 'City Beautiful' movement came about with the planting, in 1908, of several hundred Cherry Trees around the newly created Tidal Basin.

In 1912 Tokyo mayor Yukio Ozaki gave 3,000 Japanese cherry trees to the people of Washington as a sign of friendship. First lady Helen Herron Taft and Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador, planted the first two trees on the north bank of the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park.

The 3,000 trees were planted 31 years before the Jefferson Memorial was built. In fact many were destroyed clearing the spot for the memorial - this caused a huge uproar among a group of Washington ladies who chained themselves to the trees which were slated to be removed. They eventually left without incident but proved the point that the trees were universally loved - their movement became known as the 'Cherry Tree Rebellion of 1938'.

The Trees

The bloom time is early Spring from mid March to early April depending on temperatures.

  • Yama-zakura - Sargent Cherry (Prunus sargentii) - very cold resistant, flowers vary in color and size and are located on the Potomac River southwest of the Jefferson Memorial.
  • Takesimensis (Prunus takesimensis) - moisture resistant and planted in the wet tidal areas at the southern tip of Potomac Park.
  • Yoshino (Prunus x yedoendsis) - most abundant cherry tree in Potomac Park and is the tree planted around the Tidal Basin.
  • Okame (Prunus x okame) - a single specimen of this genus exists in the park, deep pink flowers and is located directly east of the Memorial.
  • Kwanzan (Prunus serrulata 'Kwanzan') - the second most abundant tree in Potomac Park, has heavy pink blooms that hang mightily from its' branches, and are located southeast of the Memorial along the Potomac River.

Other Cherry Trees Identified Throughout the Park

  • Akebono (Prunus x yedoensis 'Akebono') - pale pink flowers.
  • Usuzumi (Prunus spaachiana f. ascendens) - white gray flowers.
  • Shirofugen (Prunus serrulata 'Shirofugen) - double white flowers.

Interesting Facts

  • President Franklin Roosevelt dedicated the Jefferson Memorial on the 200th anniversary of Jefferson's birth.
  • The Jefferson Memorial was modeled after the Pantheon in Rome (see Pantheon Hub).
  • The FDR memorial is within sight of the Jefferson Memorial on the western side of the Tidal Basin
  • The trees donated in n 1912 were the second gift from Tokyo - the first 2,000 arrived in 1910 but were burned, after inspection, by the USDA due do infestation by parasitic nematodes, crown gall, root gall and scale.
  • Some 1910 burn survivors are speculated to have survived and can be seen as gnarled specimens within the East Potomac Golf Course.
  • After the attack on Pearl Harbor several Cherry Trees were vandalized in frustration.
  • After WWII the city of Washington donated clippings from the Cherry Trees to help replenish the trees of Tokyo after the firebombing of that city by US forces.
  • In 1954 the nation of Japan donated a magnificent stone lantern that is now ceremoniously lit at the beginning of each years' Cherry Blossom Festival.
  • In 1965 a gift of 3,800 Cherry Trees was donated by the government of Japan for planting around the Washington Monument.

Japanese Cherry Tree Poetry

Throughout Japanese history the Cherry Tree has held a special spiritual place in the soul of its' people. This can be illustrated in the more than 3,000 poems written over the centuries. The following are two examples that I found appropriate:

Ne-ga-wa-ku wa (I would die in the spring,)
ha-na no shi-ta ni te (under the blossoms,)
ha-ru shi-na-mu (in the second month)
so-no ki-sa-ra-gi no (at the time of)
mo-chi-zu-ki no ko-ro (the full moon)

(Author: Saigyou(1118~1190); Late Heian period; Famous for his poetry on cherry blossoms. Saigyou did indeed die in the Spring, during the second lunar moon and cherry trees shade his grave).

A perfect cherry blossom is a rare thing. You can spend your whole life looking for one, and it will not be a wasted life; (Katsumoto from the film 'The Last Samurai" -2003).

After You Go

Please make an effort to satisfy your hunger at the Metro 29 Diner after your day enjoying the trees. This spot is a Guy Fieri (Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives) favorite and is located in Arlington, Virginia - a short drive from Potomac Park and the trees.

It is always crowded but they work hard to get you a seat within a reasonable time.

The menu is packed with great diner fare prepared fresh daily. I had the French toast made with two thick slices of Challah bread, marinated in a special egg mixture and spinkled with cinnamon. Two large and fresh sausages hitched a ride on the plate along with an easy over fried egg. Marvelous!

Tidal Basin


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