Cherry trees have been blooming in the U.S. for a little more than a century.

By Meghan Overdeep
April 3, 2019

In parts of America and the world, the annual cherry blossom bloom is as synonymous with spring as the rise in temperature. While the ritual of viewing cherry blossoms dates back to the 700s in their native Japan, where they’re seen as a symbol of renewal, rebirth, and new beginnings, the fluffy pink blooms have only been celebrated in the U.S. for about a century.

As National Geographic reports, America’s love for the pretty tree can be traced back to an employee at the U.S. Department of Agriculture named David Fairchild, who went in search of unique plants that could be valuable to farmers stateside. In addition to bringing mangoes back from India, peaches from China, and avocados from Chile, Fairchild was the first American to import cherry trees from Japan.

It was 1902 when he first encountered sakura, the Japanese name for the flowering cherry trees. Struck by their beauty, Fairchild ordered 125 sakura trees from a nursery in Yokohama for his own front yard in Chevy Chase, Maryland. According to National Geographic, the nursery owner was so pleased to have an American customer that Fairchild was charged a mere 10 cents per tree. The trees were so popular when they bloomed for the first time in the spring of 1906, that Fairchild ordered 300 more as a gift to the city of Chevy Chase.

Nearby, Eliza Scidmore, who fell in love with cherry trees while visiting Japan in the 1880s was busy lobbying the government to plant them in Washington, D.C. Skidmore, the first female writer and photographer for National Geographic,  wrote a letter to First Lady Helen Taft in 1909, outlining her plan. According to the National Park Service, the First Lady liked the idea and was finally able to  bring Scidmore’s vision to life with help from her husband, President Taft, who saw it as a way to help forge a relationship between the U.S. and Japan.

As a sign of goodwill, the mayor of Tokyo, Yukio Ozak, agreed to donate 2,000 cherry trees to the U.S. Unfortunately, when they arrived in Washington D.C. in 1910, the trees were too diseased to be planted. Ozak tried again two years later, donating another 3,020 cherry blossoms from 12 different varieties in 1912. Luckily, that delivery was a success, and those trees ended up at the White House and the Tidal Basin in D.C. And the nation’s love affair with the cherry blossom began.

Washington D.C.'s first Cherry Blossom Festival took place in in 1927 and featured a reenactment of the 1912 planting by local school children. The festivities were expanded in 1935 and continue to grow to this day. Today, the festival spans four weeks and welcomes more than 1.5 million people.

Though their flowers are fleeting (they last about two weeks), some species of cherry tree can live up to 250 years.  As of 2012, The Washington Post reported that there were a "few dozen" trees remaining of the original batch first planted in 1912 near the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial.

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