Alexandria Celebrates Women: Women’s efforts helped cherry blossoms take root

Alexandria Celebrates Women: Women’s efforts helped cherry blossoms take root
Women of the Cherry Tree Rebellion in 1938. (Photo/Library of Congress)

By Gayle Converse

Washington, D.C.’s treasured cherry blossoms are the horticultural and diplomatic result of women’s efforts; yet, while the Tidal Basin itself rightfully pays homage to famous Americans – including Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Franklin Delano Roosevelt – it recognizes only one woman.

According to the National Park Service, the story of the Basin and its cherry trees begins in 1885 – 20 years following the end of the Civil War – when the National Geographic Society’s first female board member, travel writer and District resident Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore (pronounced “Sid-more”), traveled to Japan.

Upon seeing the revered pink and white blossoms in Tokyo, Scidmore pledged to bring cherry trees to Washington, D.C. For two decades, Scidmore approached federal officials, but was consistently foiled by the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds and its “sturdy, all-American trees” policy.

In 1909, the new Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction showed interest. Scidmore also sent a note outlining her proposal to then-First Lady Helen “Nellie” Louise Herron Taft. On April 7, just two days after Scidmore’s note was sent, Helen Taft 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 on the long avenue. Let me know what you think about this.

Sincerely yours,

Helen H. Taft”

As a gift of peace and friendship, Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki offered 2,000 cherry trees to the United States. But, after the saplings’ arrival in 1910, the U.S. Department of Agriculture discovered the plants were contaminated with imported pests and ordered most of the trees to be burned.

Upon hearing the news, Ozaki shipped 3,020 more trees. After two years of inspecting the new saplings, horticulturalists approved a small planting ceremony on the Basin shoreline. On March 27, 1912, Helen Taft joined the Japanese ambassador’s wife, Viscountess Iwa Chinda, to plant the first two samples from the delicate harvest. The National Cherry Blossom Festival took root in 1935 and has grown from this simple ceremony.

In 1938, plans for the Jefferson Memorial included the removal of nearby trees. On November 18, one day after construction had begun, 50 women chained themselves to a cherry tree at the work site. Then-President Roosevelt ordered the “Cherry Tree Rebellion” to disperse, or its members and the trees would be “uprooted.” The protestors gave in.

First Lady Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson led projects at the Tidal Basin from 1963 to 1969, which were part of her “Beautification Program,” an initiative thought frivolous by her critics. The program was to go hand-in-hand with previous urbanization efforts that caused pollution and fractured communities, according to the National Park Service.

“Though the word beautification makes the concept sound merely cosmetic, it involves much more: clean water, clean air, clean roadsides, safe waste disposal and preservation of valued old landmarks as well as great parks and wilderness areas,” Lady Bird said in response. “To me … beautification means our total concern for the physical and human quality we pass on to our children and the future.”

Reenacting the role of one of her predecessors in 1912, Johnson teamed with the wife of Japan’s ambassador to the United States on April 6, 1965, to plant one of 3,800 cherry trees – a new gift from Japan.

Johnson also inspired the National Park Service to add a quarter-acre garden – which is now called the Floral Library – containing 13,000 tulips at the northeastern edge of the Tidal Basin. Landscape architect Darwina Neal created the design in 1969, making her the first woman to produce one of the Basin’s foremost characteristics.

Women’s history connected in the Tidal Basin also involved large political issues. On May 1, 1971, before an estimated crowd of 50,000 on Tidal Basin land, women of the anti-war group, the “Mayday Tribe,” spoke out against women’s oppression.

Thanks to dedicated women, the nation’s beloved blooms exist today for all to enjoy. The Tidal Basin and its cherry trees have survived politics, protests, pestilence, hacksaws, World War II anti-Japanese sentiment and 1990s rodent attacks.

The writer is a founder of Alexandria Celebrates Women, a nonprofit commemorating the centennial of women’s suffrage and highlighting influential women throughout the city’s history.