The Very Short, Symbolic Life of the Cherry Blossom

By: Dave Roos  | 

woman with umbrella, cherry blossoms, Tokyo
A woman enjoys the beautiful cherry blossoms in a Tokyo park in 2020. Clive Rose/Getty Images

In Japan, the annual spring explosion of blushing pink cherry blossoms has been celebrated for more than 1,200 years. The western world came late to the cherry blossom party, but now there are cherry blossom festivals around the world — in Sweden, Canada, Spain and more — as well as the long-running National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C. scheduled for March 20 – April 17, 2022.

Before COVID-19, more than 1.5 million visitors swarmed the U.S. capital city each spring to witness the fleeting flowering of more than 3,700 cherry blossom trees encircling the Tidal Basin, home to the Jefferson Memorial. John Malott was usually among them. Malott is a former president of the Japan-America Society of Washington, D.C., which organizes the Sakura Matsuri Japanese Street Festival every April to coincide with the Cherry Blossom Festival.

"It's very, very picturesque," says Malott, describing the view from the Tidal Basin. "You have the blue of the water and the blue of the sky. Then you have the white-ish pink of the cherry blossoms against the incredible white of the Jefferson Memorial in the distance. It's very beautiful and also very peaceful. I don't think there's anywhere in the world where you can stand in one place and see that many cherry blossom trees."

The story of how and why those 3,700 cherry blossom trees were gifted from Japan more than 100 years ago and planted in America's capital city is fascinating. But first, let's learn why the cherry blossom is such an enduring symbol in Japan.

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Why Is the Cherry Blossom So Special?

In Japan, cherry blossom trees have been cultivated and celebrated since at least the eighth century C.E., when their pink blossoms first began to appear in Japanese poetry and picture scrolls. The Japanese word for cherry blossom is sakura and for more than a millennium, Japanese families have celebrated the arrival of spring with hanami or "flower gazing."

The 17th-century poet Basho captured the charm of hanami in a haiku:

A lovely spring night
suddenly vanished while we
viewed cherry blossoms

In Japan, the spring blooming of the cherry blossoms coincides with a season of renewal and new beginnings, explains Malott, who was also a former director of Japanese Affairs at the U.S. State Department and served diplomatic roles in Kobe and Osaka, Japan. April is the start of the new school year for Japanese children, and the start of a new fiscal year for Japanese companies.

Part of the hanami tradition is to have a picnic underneath the blossoming cherry trees. From mid-March through April, Japanese families and groups of friends vie for picnic spots under a canopy of pink blossoms, and companies throw rowdy, sake-fueled parties that run late into the night.

Hanami parties, Tokyo
Groups gather to celebrate the beginning of the cherry blossom season with traditional hanami parties, March 20, 2020, in Tokyo, Japan.
Clive Rose/Getty Images

"They get the lowliest staff member to go out early in the morning and stake out a spot under the trees," says Malott. "The poor guy has to be there all day."

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A Symbol of Fleeting Beauty, Nostalgia and Loss

A cherry blossom tree blooms for only about 10 days, and part of its hypnotic beauty is the knowledge that it will soon be gone. A Japanese ambassador to the U.S. once told Malott that the cherry blossom is the only flowering tree where the petals fall to the ground when they're at their peak, not when they're faded or wilted.

"Because they fall off the tree and die at the peak of their bloom, whenever you see a cherry blossom in a Japanese movie or TV show, that usually means that someone young has died," says Malott. "If the heroine is in the hospital getting sicker and sicker, and they cut to a shot of a cherry blossom falling to the ground, you know she's gone."

The Japanese word natsukashi describes a nostalgic feeling of happiness tinged with sadness and is associated with cherry blossom season. In addition to being a time of renewal, it's a time of endings, too. School graduations, for example, are held in March and Malott says they're often accompanied by "tear-jerker songs about cherry blossoms falling."

Hirosaki Park, cherry blossoms
Cherry blossom petals fill the surface of a moat early morning in Hirosaki Park in Hirosaki, Japan, April 28, 2016. Hirosaki Park is one of Japan's most popular destinations for cherry-blossom viewing.
Yuriko Nakao/Getty Images

There's a far more serious side to the symbolism, too. In World War II, the planes flown by Japanese kamikaze pilots on their suicide missions were called Ohka, another word for cherry blossom. The young cadets who "volunteered" as kamikaze pilots were also called cherry blossoms, and their uniforms and planes were stamped with the image of a single pink flower.

"The very machines these young men went to their death in were called cherry blossoms," says Malott.

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How Cherry Blossoms Came to D.C.

On March 28, 1912, a one-paragraph article appeared in The Washington Post with the underwhelming headline, "Mrs. Taft Plants a Tree." The day before, first lady Helen "Nellie" Taft, wife of President William Howard Taft, had planted the first two cherry blossom trees in Washington, D.C. as gifts from the mayor of Tokyo.

And that's the story that most people know, that the entire cherry blossom tradition in D.C. started with a Japanese gift in 1912. But that's not the half of it.

The real story behind Washington's magnificent cherry blossoms starts with Eliza Scidmore, a photographer and writer who was the first woman to sit on the board of the National Geographic Society. Scidmore traveled extensively in Japan and came back to D.C. in 1885 convinced that cherry blossom trees should be planted in Potomac Park, on land reclaimed from the Potomac River. As she later wrote, "[S]ince they had to plant something in that great stretch of raw, reclaimed ground by the river bank ... they might as well plant the most beautiful thing in the world — the Japanese cherry tree."

Cherry blossoms, Washington monument, D.C.
Cherry blossoms line the Tidal Basin during the National Cherry Blossom Festival, in Washington, D.C.
jimfeng/Getty Images

Scidmore campaigned tirelessly for more than 25 years, petitioning every president and D.C. official to plant cherry blossoms, but her idea was ignored. Then David Fairchild came along. Fairchild worked for the brand-new U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as a "plant explorer" who traveled the world looking for plant species that could be cultivated in America. While in Japan, he fell for cherry blossoms.

In 1909, Fairchild showed that cherry blossom trees thrived in the temperate climate of Washington, D.C., which emboldened Scidmore to write one more letter to the new First Lady proposing to pay for the trees herself. To her amazement, Nellie Taft replied two days later, writing, "I have taken the matter up and am promised the trees."

That's when Dr. Jokichi Takamine got involved. The wealthy Japanese chemist (he was the first person to isolate adrenaline, now called epinephrine) lived in the U.S. and had campaigned for cherry blossom trees in New York City. Scidmore told him about Mrs. Taft's promise and Takamine came up with the idea of making D.C.'s cherry trees a gift from Japan.

Unfortunately, the first shipment of 2,000 Japanese cherry blossom trees was plagued with insects and disease and had to be burned. Two months later, a shipment of 3,020 healthy trees arrived in Washington, D.C. on March 26, 1910. Mrs. Taft planted the first two the very next day, and Scidmore was there to witness the fruition of a decades-long dream. Now, cherry blossom trees line the Tidal Basin and other parts of Potomac Park, as well as other areas of the city.

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What's a Cherry Blossom and When Is Cherry Blossom Season?

Despite the name, the cherry blossom tree doesn't produce any cherries, at least not any that a human would eat. The plant is strictly ornamental, although the trees do produce a tiny dark fruit that birds and animals eat. The cherry blossom is the flower of the Prunus tree, the same genus as the cherry tree. It's just that the cherry blossom was bred to maximize blossoms rather than fruit.

The cherry blossom tree grows all over the world — in Asia, Europe, the U.S. — anywhere with a temperate climate. Blooms are usually a beautiful shade of pink or white. Although the blooming season is less than two weeks, the tree itself may live 30 to 40 years.

In the Northern Hemisphere, cherry blossom trees bloom as early as mid-January in tropical locations like Hawaii and as late as early June in northern latitudes like Michigan. The dark pink cherry blossom trees in Curitiba, Brazil, however, flower in July, which is winter in the Southern Hemisphere.

In Japan, weather websites closely track the cherry blossom "front" as bloom-worthy warm weather slowly makes its way from southern to northern Japan from March through May. In Washington, D.C., the "peak bloom" is forecast for March 22-25, 2022.

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