Science, care preserve DC’s original cherry trees

Mar 22, 2012, 3:45 PM

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) – The pink and white cherry blossoms that color the nation’s capital and draw a million visitors each spring began with trees that have survived for a century.

It was 100 years ago this month when first lady Helen Taft and the Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese Ambassador, planted two Yoshino cherry trees on the bank of Washington’s Tidal Basin. They were the first of 3,000 planted as part of a gift from the city of Tokyo as a symbol of friendship. The original pair still stands, though gnarled and showing their age, along with about 100 of the original trees transported from Japan.

Arborists and horticulturists working for the National Park Service have taken special care of the original cherry trees, pruning and watering them to keep them alive as long as possible, said spokesman Bill Line. Cherry trees typically live about 60 years in high traffic areas where soil and roots become compacted beneath visitors’ feet.

“None of us were around then and obviously the people who planted the trees then are no longer with us now,” Line said. So the trees are the living links to the beginning of a tradition, he said, “that literally timeless connection that we have.”

Most of the trees reached their peak bloom of the season this week. Still, the National Cherry Blossom Festival runs through April 27 with dozens of events and exhibits planned across Washington.

It’s a tradition that almost didn’t happen. In 1910, a first gift of 2,000 trees was shipped from Japan to Washington. But agriculture officials discovered the trees were infested with insects and diseased, and they were burned. Diplomats wrote letters of regret to officials in Tokyo. Two years later, they tried again with a shipment of 3,000 trees that made it to Washington in good condition.

Workers spent years planting the trees around the Tidal Basin and in a nearby park along the Potomac River. The original planting was re-enacted in 1927, and the first “Cherry Blossom Festival” followed in 1935.

That original genetic line of trees could have been lost over time if botanists at the U.S. National Arboretum hadn’t began working to replicate them in the 1980s. By that point, many of the 3,000 had died and were replaced with new trees bought at U.S. nurseries.

Scientists took small cuttings of the original trees and perfected a process of using hormones to stimulate root growth and grow clones. The cuttings were carefully grown in greenhouses with daily checkups and pains taken to keep the soil from drying out. Over several years, the tiny plants grow into trees that can be planted once again.

In 1997, the arboretum produced 500 new trees from the original line to provide the National Park Service with replacements for the Tidal Basin trees. It has also saved clones to have a permanent genetic repository of the trees, said Margaret Pooler, a research geneticist at the arboretum.

“This way, that original gift that came in 1912 is going to be preserved as well,” Pooler said. Taking on that responsibility, she said, has become a “source of pride.”

More recently, the arboretum and the park service sent 120 clones of the original trees back to Japan so scientists there can also retain the genetic line. Another set of trees has been sent to Pittsburgh to be planted in parks there.

Separately, the arboretum is also creating new varieties of cherry trees through a breeding program that combines the traits of different species. The goal is to make cherry trees heartier, more resilient to disease and to produce different flower types. New varieties of trees from the federally funded arboretum are given over to nurseries for free to propagate and sell.

For George Waters, a research technician who helps to nurture new cherry tree clones at the arboretum, this year’s warm weather means the growing season already is ahead of schedule. Some of the recently rooted plants that stand only a few inches tall are already blooming with flowers. And he sees a direct connection between his gardening work and the trees that so many people admire.

“People love those trees so much,” he said. “Anything we can do to help keep the display going and keep it nice, it’s a good feeling.”


U.S. National Arboretum:

National Park Service Cherry Blossom History:

National Cherry Blossom Festival:


Follow Brett Zongker on Twitter at

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

United States News

The image from video released on Jan. 27, 2023, by the City of Memphis, shows Tyre Nichols on the g...
Associated Press

Memphis authorities release video in Tyre Nichols’ death

Video showing Memphis officers beating a Black man was made public Friday after they were charged with murder in the death of Tyre Nichols.
21 hours ago
Demonstrators stage a rally in front of the White House to celebrate President Joe Biden's plan to ...
Kevin Stone

Lawsuits keeping over 300,000 Arizonans from getting student loan relief

Lawsuits are preventing more than 300,000 Arizonans from having some or all of their student debt dismissed, the Biden administration said Friday.
21 hours ago
FILE -  A Goodyear tire sits on display at a tire shop on Feb. 12, 2014, in South Euclid, Ohio. A f...
Associated Press

Arizona lawyer subpoenaed in criminal investigation of Goodyear tires

A federal grand jury in Los Angeles is gathering evidence in a criminal investigation of Goodyear recreational vehicle tires.
2 days ago
Following days of rain, floodwaters cover streets in the Planada community of Merced County, Calif....
Associated Press

Atmospheric rivers in California boost water allocation for cities

Public water agencies in California will be getting more water from the state because of recent heavy rain.
2 days ago
(Brian Munoz/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP, File)...
Associated Press

FDA declines to regulate CBD; calls on Congress for fix

The Food and Drug Administration said Thursday there are too many unknowns about CBD products to regulate them as foods or supplements under the agency’s current structure and called on Congress to create new rules for the massive and growing market. The marijuana-derived products have become increasingly popular in lotions, tinctures and foods, while their […]
2 days ago
FILE - An employee works in the battery assembly hall at the BMW Spartanburg plant in Greer, S.C., ...
Associated Press

US economy slowed but still grew at 2.9% rate last quarter

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. economy expanded at a 2.9% annual pace from October through December, ending 2022 with momentum despite the pressure of high interest rates and widespread fears of a looming recession. Thursday’s estimate from the Commerce Department showed that the nation’s gross domestic product — the broadest gauge of economic output — […]
2 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Prep the plumbing in your home just in time for the holidays

With the holidays approaching, it's important to know when your home is in need of heating and plumbing updates before more guests start to come around.
(Photo via MLB's Arizona Fall League / Twitter)...
Arizona Fall League

Top prospects to watch at this year’s Arizona Fall League

One of the most exciting elements of the MLB offseason is the Arizona Fall League, which began its 30th season Monday.
Children’s Cancer Network

Children’s Cancer Network celebrates cancer-fighting superheroes, raises funds during September’s Childhood Cancer Awareness Month

Jace Hyduchak was like most other kids in his kindergarten class: He loved to play basketball, dress up like his favorite superheroes and jump as high as his pint-sized body would take him on his backyard trampoline.
Science, care preserve DC’s original cherry trees