Washington DC’s cherry blossoms: A history (grass) rooted in advocacy
Written by Policy Wonk Steve on April 19, 2014
In the waning months of March and first few weeks of April, our nation’s capital begins to warm. Along the banks of the Potomac and across the national mall, seemingly barren cherry trees begin to blossom. With the beautiful cherry blossoms, comes a massive migration of tourists that natives know all too well. Unfortunately the cherry blossoms only grace us with their presence for a mere few weeks, fortunately the tourists, the smog from the buses that transport them, and the crowded metro escalators they coagulate evaporate as quickly as the blossoms themselves! The cherry blossoms and their ensuing festival are certainly a significant annual event in Washington. All can appreciate their charm, but very few know that their existence is the result of advocacy.
According to the National Park Service, in 1885 Mrs. Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, upon returning to Washington from her first visit to Japan, approached the U.S. Army Superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, with the proposal that cherry trees be planted one day along the reclaimed Potomac waterfront. Her request fell on deaf ears. Over the next twenty-four years, Mrs. Scidmore approached every new superintendent, but her idea met with no success.
As many of us know, most grassroots (pardon the pun) advocacy campaigns begin as an uphill battle. Mrs. Scidmore’s quest to bring cherry trees to Washington was no different. Whether it is responding to the opposition, fundraising, or developing a core following – we all shoulder the burden of early obstacles. It is imperative that we put our head down and weather the storm with persistence.
Twenty-four years later, Eliza’s tenacity was still alive and well. In 1909 she decided to try a new tactic. She would raise the money required to purchase the cherry trees and then donate them to the city herself. As a matter of course, Eliza sent a note outlining her plan to the new first lady, Helen Herron Taft. Like any good advocate, Eliza had done her homework over the years. She knew that Mrs. Taft had lived in Japan and was familiar with the beauty of the flowering cherry trees. Two days later the first lady responded with the following message:
The White House, Washington
April 7, 1909
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.
Helen H. Taft
Finally, Eliza had the ear of an influential figure. The very next day on April 8th (after Mrs. Taft’s letter of April 7), Dr. Jokichi Takamine, a Japanese chemist who discovered adrenaline, was in Washington with Mr. Midzuno, Japanese consul in New York. When Mr. Midzuno learned that Washington was to have Japanese cherry trees planted along a Speedway, he asked whether Mrs. Taft would accept a donation of an additional two thousand cherry trees to fill the entire area and assist the effort.
In the advocacy community we would now say that Eliza and First Lady Taft had established a coalition. As it would come to be, Mr. Midzuno thought it was an excellent idea and suggested that the trees be given in the name of the City of Tokyo. Of course, First Lady Taft agreed to accept the eventual donation of 2,000 cherry trees and on January 7th 1910, they were delivered.
Unfortunately when the trees arrived, the Department of Agriculture found that they were diseased with insects and nematodes. In order to protect American farmers, the newly arrived cherry trees were ordered to be destroyed. Nearly all of them were burned (some were saved for experimentation). With Eliza’s goal nearly within grasp, I imagine her watching as her mission quite literally went up in flames. Her advocacy campaign had met a major setback.
Thankfully, with somewhat of a “cherry tree coalition” established, new members were recruited to join the fight. The setback was alleviated by letters from the Secretary of State to the Japanese Ambassador expressing the deep regret of all concerned. The coalition had now spread to include all parties involved from Japan. The individuals from Japan decided they would respond with determination and a token of good will.
Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki and others suggested a second donation be made. The Tokyo City Council authorized that 3,020 new cherry trees now be donated to the United States. On March 26th 12 different varieties arrived and over the next few months, all were planted. Finally, Eliza and First Lady Taft’s objective was realized!
Some may call it good fortune, luck, convenient timing, or a mix of all. I personally like to believe that the Washington, DC cherry blossoms are a result of persistent advocacy and strategic coalition building. The next time you visit our nation’s capital for the cherry blossom festival and fight the throngs of tourists for your next Facebook/Twitter/Instagram profile picture, take a second to appreciate their history, a history rooted in collaborative advocacy.
*Historical information gathered from National Park Service resources