The Magnificent Cherry Tree
Spring is almost here; in fact, I think it came early based on the bud breaking and leaf unfurling observed in the past few weeks. The anticipation of the cherry tree blooms is filling the air, especially around the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC. I’m sure most of you have been to the National Cherry Blossom Festival at least once in your life, or at a minimum witnessed its beauty televised on the news. It’s truly a sight to behold.
Now, being a native plant enthusiast, it’s my duty to inform you that all the glorious cherry trees planted in DC, and the reason for the festival, are actually Japanese in origin. However, I do not mind this one bit. I am also a history buff when it comes to horticulture, and I am constantly amazed at the stories in trees. (That’s a future book I’m thinking about writing, so I call dibs on that title.)
We’ll discuss the history of these Japanese trees shortly but first, let’s chat a little about our native cherries. Yes, we do have native cherry trees and even though they are not as ornamental or vibrant as the Japanese varieties, they play a vital role in our ecology and food web. According to Doug Tallamy, professor at the University of Delaware, native cherries are second only to our native oaks for their importance to our region’s ecological health.
Black cherry or Prunus serotina, is one of our eastern natives and is considered a pioneer species. A pioneer species is a plant that is first to encroach on open, disturbed land or in places after a wildfire occurred. They are fast growing and tolerant of diverse environments. They can grow in sun or shade and can adapt to most soil conditions. But their true value lies in their importance to wildlife.
The fruit of the black cherry is devoured by 33 species of birds and many caterpillars, including the Eastern tent caterpillar, which prefers them. Numerous other moths and butterflies are attracted to black cherry, including the Eastern tiger swallowtail and the sphinx moth. Our native bees are also drawn to this tree, especially the bumblebee.
And of course, the wood of the black cherry is highly prized for its red tint; it’s often used in furniture. However, words of caution: even though the fruit is edible, every other part of this plant is highly toxic, even the seeds. In addition, the tree is known for its allelopathic properties, meaning some garden plants will not grow in close proximity to the tree because of a chemical it emits in the soil.
Back to a brief and interesting history of the Japanese cherries. Many of you may remember, in 2012, that First Lady Michelle Obama celebrated the 100-year anniversary of the cherries that were planted by First Lady Helen Taft and Viscountess Chinda (wife of the Japanese Ambassador). However, the story of the Japanese cherry tree in America starts before that. It was actually the idea of Mrs. Eliza Scidmore—which fell on deaf ears at the time—to plant these trees along the Potomac River. It would take over 20 years before her advocacy paid off and Helen Taft took up the cause to plant cherries along the avenue.
During this same time, a Japanese chemist was in Washington and heard about this endeavor. He asked the mayor of Tokyo to make a donation of 2,000 trees to the United States, which the mayor agreed to do. However, these trees would show up in DC infested with insects and had to be destroyed. The Tokyo mayor suggested a second donation and this time sent over 3,000 trees of varying varieties.
In 1912, these trees were planted around Washington. Taft and Chinda planted two at a ceremony at the Tidal Basin…this would be the basis of the National Cherry Blossom Festival. During the next 100 years, new trees would be propagated from these original selections, so that replacements could be installed when needed. The propagation effort also came in handy when cherry trees suffered great decline in Japan after WWII, and the US gifted cherry trees propagated from this original stock back to Tokyo.
Horticulture has transformative properties not only in nature, but in all aspects of the human condition, including as symbols of peace between nations.
Be kind, and let’s garden together. ▼
Eric W. Wahl is Landscape Architect at Pennoni Associates, and President of the Delaware Native Plant Society.
Photo: Eric Dekker on Unsplash.com