When you put Japan and America and Spring together you automatically get cherries, right? I have these cards in my ephemera file (under “fruit people”, a surprisingly large category) and was never sure what to do with them or how to tie it them to anything I’ve been writing about, but then I realized (from the Library of Congress’s Today in History site) that this weekend marks the anniversary of the first planting of the Japanese cherry trees in Washington in 1912, so there you go. I love the sentiment on the first card (Cheer Up! Cherries are Ripe) and it is clear from the last two that cherries make everything better, even cough syrup.
At about the same time that drug and beverage companies were adding cherry flavor to their recipes (the first “organic” additive) thousands of Japanese cherry trees were planted in Washington. I’ve seen the spring cherry blossoms in Washington several times, and they are beautiful. You would think that a gift of friendship from Japan to the United States would be a simple and somewhat spontaneous gesture but apparently it took some time to germinate. The woman behind Washington’s cherry trees was Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, one of many Americans who travelled to Japan during the Meiji Restoration, fell in love with its landscape and culture, and wanted to take something back home (I wrote about another here). It took Miss Scidmore, a writer, photographer, and the first female board member of the National Geographic Society, several decades to bring about the planting of Japanese cherry trees in her native Washington. The key moment came when she was able to convince First Lady Helen Herron Taft of this necessity, and on March 27, 1912 Mrs. Taft and the wife of the Japanese Ambassador planted two Yoshino cherry trees on the Potomoc River’s Tidal Basin bank, the first of over 3000 donated to the United States by Japan in that year. In 1965, another 3800 trees were sent over by Japan, further identifying the American capital with cherry blossoms.
Miss Scidmore was not the only westerner entranced by Japanese cherry trees. More locally, Charles Sprague Sargent, the first director of the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, employed intrepid “plant hunter” Ernest Henry Wilson to find just the right Asian cherry tree varieties for the park. The two men are pictured below in 1915, before a flourishing specimen. Salem’s famed horticulturist Robert Manning was also an admirer and cultivator of cherry trees, though more of the “English” variety (brought to England from the Continent by Henry VIII in the early sixteenth century) than the Asian ones.
Of course, the other reason why Miss Scidmore wanted cherry trees installed in Washington was their connection to its namesake, the first President. All forms of popular culture from the period make it clear that Washington the man was inextricably intertwined with the cherry tree he cut down as a boy (thus revealing his truthful nature): what better way to compensate for this mistake than by planting thousands of replacements in Washington the city?