Dad says it’s
time for us
from Pie in the Sky!
written and illustrated by Lois Ehlert
I always wondered if the Japanese gifted the United States with cherry trees to replace the tree young George Washington famously chopped down. The short answer is “no.” The longer answer is “it’s complicated.”
Turns out the story is, well, just that, a story made up by a traveling minister and bookseller, Mason Locke Weems. After Washington’s death in 1799, the public was hungry for information about his life. Weems wrote the cherry tree story, but did not include it until the fifth edition of his extremely popular biography. A minister, after all, Weems included the story to illustrate honesty, one of Washington’s “Great Virtues.”
The marketing aspect was not lost on him either. He knew if he wrote a popular book, it would have a high sales volume. “Weems knew what the public wanted to read, and as a result of his success he is considered one of the fathers of popular history.” www.mountvernon.org
Many years later, William Holmes McGuffey re-wrote the tale as a children’s story and included it in his series of Eclectic Readers.
The story has endured for more than 200 years and is a tribute to good story-telling and the high value we Americans place on telling the truth. (The irony is not lost on me. I take exception with the values of our former president and his ardent followers.)
The real story of Washington’s cherry trees winds through our history. It begins with Eliza Scidmore, the c is silent. Among her many accomplishments, Eliza successfully convinced the United States Government to plant cherry trees in the barren land surrounding the Capitol.
In 1885, Eliza traveled to Japan to visit her brother. She was smitten with the people and the beauty of the land. She wanted more than anything to plant the beautiful cherry trees she saw there around the Tidal Basin surrounding the Capitol in Washington DC. Her idea was rejected when she presented it in 1885, and time after time for 24 years.
David Fairchild, a prominent horticulturist and botanist, was an official in the US Department of Agriculture. In 1906, he imported 100 cherry trees to test their viability in the Maryland environment, especially around his home in Chevy Chase. A year later the experiment was a confirmed success. Two years later, to celebrate Arbor Day, Fairchild gave saplings to children in the Washington DC school district to plant in their school yards. He closed his Arbor Day speech with the announcement of his wish to transform the Tidal Basin into a “Field of Cherries.”
Eliza Scidmore had found her advocate. She immediately began a fund-raising campaign to purchase trees and donate them to the city. She appealed to First Lady Helen Taft. Mrs. Taft, who was very familiar with the beautiful cherry trees, responded by assuring Eliza that she was promised the trees and would like to “make an avenue of them.”
The day after she wrote Eliza of her plan, Dr. Jokichi Takamine, a Japanese chemist, asked if Mrs. Taft would accept a donation of 2,000 more trees to fill in the area. Since he was in New York visiting the Japanese consul at the time, the deal was quickly made. The mayor of Tokyo agreed, too, and the trees were on their way.
In December 1910, two thousand trees arrived in Seattle and one month later they arrived in Washington DC.
A few days after their arrival, an inspection team from the Department of Agriculture discovered the trees were diseased and infested with insects. To protect American growers, the trees had to be destroyed. About a dozen affected trees were set aside for study. The rest were burned. All parties, East and West, were disappointed but determined and Tokyo’s mayor approved another shipment. This time they sent 3,020 trees in 12 different varieties.
On March 27, 1912, two trees were planted, one each, by Mrs. Taft and the wife of the Japanese Ambassador. Those two trees still stand where they were planted and are marked by a large bronze plaque. Between 1913 and 1920, workers planted cherry trees of the other 11 varieties.
Throughout the years, cherry trees continue to be planted. Grafts are taken and grown to ensure the lineage of the original trees.
In 1982, when a river flooded in Japan and destroyed an embankment of Yoshino cherry trees, Japanese horticulturists collected about 800 cuttings from the Tidal Basin trees to help restore their flooded grove.
In Japan, the cherry tree has become a symbol of restoration and renewal. Even though the beautiful blooms last only a short time, the beautiful memory has staying power. Since 1927, (except for the years of WWII) the annual Cherry Blossom Festival is a continual a celebration of friendship between the two countries.
Even though the trees in Washington DC do not bear edible fruit, they have borne a lasting friendship between allies which remains strong.
-—stay curious! (and treasure your friendships)