Late in her life, Eliza Scidmore wrote that she grew enamored of flowering cherry trees when she visited Japan in the 1880s. It gave her the idea that Washington should have a park of cherries along the Potomac for residents and visitors to enjoy every spring. Back home she took up the cause with federal park officials. They listened politely, but showed no interest. More than two decades later it finally come about, thanks to the enthusiasm of First Lady Helen Taft, who had also traveled in Japan and understood what Eliza had in mind.
Eliza was in her 50s when she watched Mrs. Taft and the Japanese ambassador’s wife plant the first two trees in Washington on March 27, 1912.
In Japan, hordes of people flocked to city parks for blossom-viewing parties when the cherry trees were in bloom. Eliza’s chief inspiration was two notable parks in Tokyo with great cherry-tree displays: Ueyno Park, in an area of sacred temples and royal tombs, and Mukojima, an avenue of trees extending a mile or two along the banks of the Sumida River. What Washington needed, Eliza wrote many times, was a “Mukojima on the Potomac.”
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 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.”