The effort to bring cherry trees to Washington, D.C., preceded the official planting by several decades. In 1885, Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore returned from her first trip to Japan and approached the U.S. Army Superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds with the idea of planting cherry trees along the reclaimed waterfront of the Potomac River. Scidmore, who would go on to become the first female board member of the National Geographic Society, was rebuffed, though she would continue proposing the idea to every Superintendent for the next 24 years. Several cherry trees were brought to the region by individuals in this period, including one that was the location of a 1905 cherry blossom viewing and tea party hosted by Scidmore in northwest D.C. Among the guests was prominent botanist David Fairchild and his fiance Marian, the daughter of inventor Alexander Graham Bell.
In 1906, David Fairchild imported 1000 cherry trees from the Yokohama Nursery Company in Japan and planted them on his own property in Chevy Chase, Maryland. The Fairchilds were pleased with the results of their planting and in 1907 began promoting Japanese flowering cherry trees as an ideal tree to plant around avenues in the Washington area. On September 26, with the help of the Fairchilds' friends, the Chevy Chase Land Company ordered 300 Oriental cherry trees for the Chevy Chase area. In 1908, Fairchild donated cherry saplings to every D.C. school to plant on its school grounds in observance of Arbor Day. At an Arbor Day speech that Eliza Scidmore attended, Fairchild proposed that the "Speedway" (a now non-existing route around the D.C. Tidal Basin) be turned into a "Field of Cherries."
In 1909, Scidmore decided to raise the money to buy cherry trees and donate them to the District. As a matter largely of form, on April 5 she wrote a letter to First Lady Helen Herron Taft, wife of newly elected president Howard Taft, informing her of her plans. Two days later, the First Lady responded:Thank you very much for your suggestion about the cherry trees. I have taken the matter up and am promised the trees, but I thought perhaps it would be best to make an avenue of them, extending down to the turn in the road, as the other part is still too rough to do any planting. Of course, they could not reflect in the water, but the effect would be very lovely of the long avenue. Let me know what you think about this.
By chance, Jokichi Takamine, the Japanese chemist who discovered adrenaline, was in Washington with Mr. Midzuno, the Japanese consul to New York City, on April 8. Informed of a plan to plant Japanese cherry trees along the Speedway, Takamine asked if Mrs. Taft would accept an additional 2000 trees, while Midzuno suggested that the trees be given in the name of Tokyo. Takamine and Midzuo subsequently met with the First Lady, who accepted the offer of 2000 trees.
On April 13, Spencer Cosby, Superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, purchased ninety cherry trees (Prunus serrulata) that were planted along the Potomac River from the Lincoln Memorial south toward East Potomac Park. It was subsequently discovered that the trees were of the cultivar Shirofugen, rather than the ordered Fugenzo. These trees had largely disappeared by the 21st century.
On August 30, 1909, the Embassy of Japan in Washington, D.C., informed the U.S. Department of State that the city of Tokyo intended to donate 2000 cherry trees to the United States to be planted along the Potomac. These trees arrived in Washington, D.C., on January 6, 1910. However, the inspection team from the Department of Agriculture (led by Flora Wambaugh Patterson) found that the trees were infested with insects and nematodes, concluding that the trees had to be destroyed to protect local growers. President Taft gave the order to burn the trees on January 28. Secretary of State Philander C. Knox wrote a letter expressing the regret of all involved to the Japanese Ambassador. Takamine responded to the news with another donation for more trees, 3020 in all, of a lineage taken from a famous group of trees along the Arakawa River in Tokyo and grafted onto stock from Itami, Hyogo Prefecture. On February 14, 1912, 3020 cherry trees of twelve cultivars were shipped on board the Awa Maru and arrived in D.C. via rail car from Seattle on March 26.
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