A new book about Eliza Scidmore tells the twisty tale.
Written by Damare Baker | Published on
Japanese cherry blossoms are a familiar part of DC’s landscape, but getting them here wasn’t easy. Diana P. Parsell’s new book, Eliza Scidmore: The Trailblazing Journalist Behind Washington’s Cherry Trees, details the writer, geographer, and photographer’s long fight to bring the trees to the Tidal Basin. A quick look at Parsell’s account of how it happened.
A Fateful Visit
Eliza Scidmore, a DC resident and Georgetown Visitation grad, went to Japan in 1888 to do a newspaper travel article. She was wowed by Tokyo’s bountiful blooms.
A Colorful Idea
Inspired by Tokyo cherry-blossom hot spots Uyeno Park and the Mukojima district, Scidmore decided that the trees should be planted along the Tidal Basin. She took her idea to various officials, but her dream to create a Mukojima on the Potomac was thwarted by the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, which instead wanted to plant “sturdy, all-American trees.”
A Cherry Experiment
Years later, plant expert David Fairchild—at the time recently named head of the federal government’s Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction—decided to test how the trees would fare in DC. By 1908, he’d planted more than 300 saplings on District schoolyards and around Chevy Chase in Maryland.
A Continuing Quest
Fairchild didn’t inspire a mass cherry-blossom movement, but Scidmore—by that point a very prominent figure—hadn’t given up. Now decades into her effort, she would hit up people she knew who’d been to Japan, including President Taft and his wife, Helen.
A Prominent Convert
When Scidmore shared her idea with the presidential couple, the First Lady was charmed. Mrs. Taft had already been working with the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds on a plan for the area around the Tidal Basin, and cherry blossoms soon became part of it.
A Buggy Beginning
Informed about Helen Taft’s plan, Tokyo mayor Yukio Ozaki offered 2,000 cherry trees to DC as a gift. But after their arrival in 1910, the USDA discovered they were infested with nonnative pests and ordered them to be burned.
A Vibrant Victory
That didn’t deter Ozaki, who then shipped 3,020 more trees. Horticultural experts spent two years selecting, fumigating, and inspecting them before they were planted at a small ceremony along the Tidal Basin. About 100 trees from that original bunch remain today—and DC’s blossoms have become an international tourist destination thanks to Scidmore’s persistence.
This article appears in the March 2023 issue of Washingtonian.
Before becoming Research Editor, Damare Baker was an Editorial Fellow and Assistant Editor for Washingtonian. She has previously written for Voice of America and The Hill. She is a graduate of Georgetown University, where she studied international relations, Korean, and journalism.