It’s almost as if they know they need to produce a special show of their pink and white blooms for 2012, which marks the 100th anniversary of the planting of the trees as a gift from Japan.
But as an expected million-plus visitors come through Washington for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival they may not be aware of a facility about five miles from the Tidal Basinthat has helped ensure the genetic legacy of the original trees while also breeding new varieties that the public can enjoy.
These trees reside at the U.S. National Arboretum, dedicated to the preservation and maintenance of ornamental plants. The 446-acre botanical research center houses more than 1,600 cherry trees that represent 400 genetically distinct varieties.
“When people think of flowering cherries, they think of the Tidal Basin,” says Margaret Pooler, a research geneticist at the arboretum. “But there’s so many more species that people haven’t seen yet.”
In celebration of the centennial of the plantings, the arboretum is introducing a new flowering cultivar this month called “Helen Taft.” Named after the first lady who played a pivotal role in getting the trees to the Tidal Basin, the seed parent of “Helen Taft” comes from a cutting of the tree that was planted by first lady Taft and the Japanese ambassador’s wife, Viscountess Chinda, in 1912.
“I think it’s important to recognize Helen Taft’s role because most people have no idea who she is,” Pooler says. “No one even thinks that it took some serious effort on both sides of the ocean to get these plants here.”
In addition to developing new varieties of flowering cherries, the arboretum has helped preserve the genetic heritage of the 1912 shipment of trees from Japan.
In the late 1970, the deteriorating health of the original trees was noted by a former arboretum employee, Roland Jefferson, while collecting data at Potomac Park. The dying trees were being replaced by nursery stock, and Jefferson was afraid the original gift would be lost.
“They’re great beauty and I was concerned about their condition,” says Jefferson, an 88-year-old retired botanist. “I thought they should be saved for future generations to enjoy.”
As a preservation effort, the arboretum obtained cuttings of the surviving trees from the Tidal Basin and cultivated clones. They have since planted 450 of these clones at the Tidal Basin in cooperation with the National Park Service.
“The National Arboretum has been a strong supporter of our effort to sustain the grove,” Robert Defeo, chief horticulturist at the National Park Service, said.
In 1980, the arboretum was approached by Japanese officials who said they had lost the parent stock of cherry trees that they had given to the United States. The arboretum responded by providing them 3,000 cuttings of the original trees.
“We also added original clones to our collection at the arboretum, so we have them preserved here long term,” Pooler says. “Even when the originals die, we have the exact clones here.”
According to the National Park Service, approximately 100 trees from the original gift of over 3,000 still survive, exceeding the average life span of 50 to 75 years in the USA.
“It’s significant that these have been here for 100 years,” Pooler says. “They’re a constant reminder of a friendship gift combined with a beautiful bloom.”