Eliza Scidmore grew enamored of flowering cherry trees during repeat visits to Japan beginning in the mid-1880s. She got the idea that Washington should plant a grove of the trees along the Potomac. She had a spot in mind: a stretch of undeveloped ground where the Army Corps of Engineers was creating Potomac Park on formerly swampy mudflats near the Washington Monument.
Back home in Washington, she took her idea to the men in charge of federal parks and grounds. They listened politely but showed no interest.
More than two decades later, Scidmore found an opportunity to get her way by appealing to the new First Lady, Helen Taft. Eliza knew Mrs. Taft had also traveled in Japan and appreciated the novel beauty of cherry blossoms. Eliza was in her 50s when she watched, on March 27, 1912, as Mrs. Taft and the Japanese ambassador’s wife planted the first two cherry trees of 3,000 that Japan gave to Washington.
Eliza’s chief inspiration for her idea was two famous parks in Tokyo with great cherry-tree displays: Ueyno Park, an area of sacred temples and royal tombs, and Mukojima, an avenue of trees extending more than a mile along the Sumida River.
At Mukojima, acrobats, jugglers, and orators gave blossom-viewing outings a carnival tone. Saké flowed freely. One Western visitor wrote of his disgust at the “dissipation.” But Eliza found the Bacchanalian atmosphere amusing. “The laughter is so infectious, the antics and figures so comical, that even sober people seem to have tasted of the insane cup,” she wrote.
In a centuries-old custom, the Japanese wrote special nature poems on delicate slips of paper and tied them to tree branches during cherry blossom parties. The poetic offerings were left to blow away in the wind like flower petals.
As she came to know the Japanese and their culture, it seemed to Eliza that nothing epitomized Japanese sensibilities so well as cherry blossoms — sakura. “Except Fuji-Yama and the moon,” she wrote, “no other object has been the theme and inspiration of so many millions of Japanese poems as the cherry blossom.”