The First Cherry Blossoms of Washington D.C...Were Burned to Protect America from Foreign Invasion?
By Heath Shive
The famous cherry trees of Washington, D.C., will begin blooming on March 20, peaking on April 4th.
The trees are beautiful, iconic, and worthy of an American's bucket list.
And the first batch was destroyed to protect America from foreign invaders.
To the history!
The Food Explorer David Fairchild
In the later 1800s, the U.S. adopted a largely unregulated gold standard which – when combined with mass production – created what economists called “the Long Depression.”
Between 1870 and 1895, the price for a bushel of corn dropped from 43 cents to 30 cents. A bushel of wheat worth $1.06 in 1870 had lost almost 40 percent of its value by 1900.
Realizing that American farmers needed more variety than just corn and wheat, the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent out "food explorer" David Fairchild to gather seeds and plantings from around the world.
Fairchild is credited with introducing nectarines, avocadoes, mangoes, soybeans, and kale to the U.S.
But Fairchild’s wife Marian loved Japanese flowering cherry trees, and when the Fairchilds finally bought their first home outside D.C. in 1906, Marian ordered over 100 flowering cherry trees.
The Fairchild’s lawn become famous in the capital.
Then-president William Howard Taft had also been to Japan and had loved their flowering cherry trees. But here’s the thing: mainstream America was xenophobic just then. There had been a general ban on all Asian immigrants – especially Chinese – for decades. By 1907, Japanese and Korean immigrants in California were forced into segregated neighborhoods.
And it wasn’t good to make Japan mad. Japan was a rising world power. From 1895 to 1905, Japan had successfully won wars against China and Russia.
Planting beautiful Japanese flowering cherry trees in America's capital carried political importance.
So 300 flowering cherry trees were shipped from Tokyo to Washington, D.C.
There was just one problem. Or rather, thousands of tiny problems.
The Fruit Man vs. the Bug Man
Charles Marlatt was the USDA’s chief entomologist. When California’s crops were being destroyed by the San Jose scale (an invasive insect), it was Marlatt who had saved the day by bringing back the scale’s natural predator - ladybugs.
Yes, Charles Marlatt was the man who introduced ladybugs to the United States! But during the trip to Asia, Marlatt's wife contracted disease and died.
Foreign crops were Fairchild's fame, but Marlatt's pain.
Marlatt inspected the imported cherry trees and found them rife with pestilence: root gall, 2 kinds of scale bugs, a new species of borer, and 6 more dangerous insect species.
Taft had no choice but to burn the entire lot of trees, which newspapers made into a public spectacle.
Taft and the diplomatic corps were afraid of Japan’s reaction, but Japan expressed only shame – shame that they had given so inferior a gift.
New trees were sent, and these trees passed even Marlatt’s scrutiny.
And on March 27, 1912, First Lady Helen Taft planted the first tree and the Japanese ambassador’s wife planted the second tree.
A century later, the trees still bloom, and national news networks use the blossoming as a kind of harbinger of spring.
In fact, Americans love the trees so much, that no one cares that these trees don’t make cherries.
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Stone, Daniel. The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats. Dutton, 2018.
Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.