Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Beauty of Life Is Fleeting--A Brief History of the Cherry Blossom Trees

The Cherry Blossom Festival is an eagerly awaited rite of Spring every year here in Washington, DC, but after this year's Snowmageddon, the opening of the blossoms seems extra-special. David and I carefully watched the blossom calendar in each issue of the Washington Post to plan our visit to the Tidal Basin. Friday was a perfect day. The weather was mild, the sky was clear and away we went!


Back in 1885, Mrs. Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, had recently returned to Washington, DC, from Japan with an idea: Why not plant the flowering cherry tree (Sakura),along the Potomac waterfront? For 24 years, she approached various officials, but with no success.


In 1909, Mrs. Scidmore sent a letter to First Lady Helen Taft. Since the First Lady had lived in Japan, she was familiar with the trees. Mrs. Taft quickly responded that she thought "it would be best to make an avenue of them...."


Two thousand trees were donated, but turned out to be the wrong cultivar. Then 2,000 more were ordered, and these turned out to be infested with insects and nematodes. They had to be destroyed. Somehow the Japanese Ambassador Sutemi Chinda became involved. Dr. Jokichi Takamine, the chemist who discovered adrenaline, donated the money for the trees.


On March 27, 1912, First Lady Helen Taft and Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese Ambassador, planted two trees on the bank of the Tidal Basin. All in all, 3,020 trees are planted.


In Japan, the cherry tree blossoms represent how fleeting the beauty of life is. Two years after the ceremony, Ambassador Chinda and his wife were joined in Washington, DC, by their son, Masuyo, who enrolled in a master's program in Johns Hopkins University. There, the young man worked for two years, but on April 18, 1916, Masuyo Chinda hanged himself as "a direct consequence of ...strain induced by overwork."


So the next time you see a picture of the cherry trees in blossom, remember: They are only fleeting, and so is all of this. I think that's one of the reasons I love writing mysteries. Each time I write about death, I am forced to think about life, and what matters to me. Hearing this story about the death of the Chindas' son, I think I viewed the blossoms with a bit more appreciation. They certainly had more meaning for me.

How about you?


Mason Canyon said...

Thank you for sharing that bit of history. The Cherry Blossom trees are beautiful and this will certainly give them new meaning. I am curious though, what about Mrs. Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore? I wonder if she ever got to enjoy the labor of her long years of wanting to trees planted.

Book Dilettante said...

How very sad... I didn't know this part of the history of the DC cherry trees. On a happier note, there is Old Capital by Kawabata, set in Kyoto. There are cherry blossoms on the cover of the edition I show and cherry blossom festivals in the novel. Just right for spring.
Book Dilettante

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Good question. I was able to find a newspaper clipping that says Mrs. Scidmore was in attendance at the planting.

She also went on to be the first female board member of the National Geographic Society.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Book Dilettante, I have visited Kyoto, but I don't remember the cherry trees. Of course, they might not have been in bloom! I did see a giant Buddha, several stories high, one of the highlights of my visit to Japan. Here's a link to the book cover you mention. Thanks for sharing that. I think I'll look up the book, as I love reading about Japan. I really enjoyed my time there.

Anita Clenney said...

Thank you for that bit of history. I live only about an hour from Washington DC and I didn't know the story behind the cherry blossoms.

Terri Thayer said...

I've got a cherry tree in front of my house. Blooms in February around here, and often gets rained on so the blossoms fall like snow. So fleeting.

Never knew that tale, thanks.

Monica Ferris said...

I never seem to be in Washington when the cherry trees are in bloom. I did once go horseback riding alone through an apple orchard when the blossoms were falling like snow. It was a magical experience.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Terri, you are right. One rain, and it's over. We were lucky we visited on a beautiful, nearly wind-less day.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Monica, that's a powerful image. Wow. Wish I could have been there.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Anita, isn't it amazing how little bits and pieces get lost? I mean, the major portions of the story are always retold, but the delicious details can get ignored along the way.

Betty Hechtman said...

I was in DC for the cherry blossoms once, and it was beautiful. I didn't know the history or the meaning of the blossoms. Thanks for sharing it, Joanna.

Monica, love your image.