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Preserving the cherry blossom tradition


WORLD Radio - Preserving the cherry blossom tradition

A project to restore the sea wall along the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., strives to honor the history of the cherry trees

The cherry tree nicknamed “Stumpy” in peak bloom on March 25, 2023 in Washington, D.C. Getty Images/Photo by Alex Wong

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, April 3rd.

Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning! I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

Coming next on The World and Everything in It: preserving a symbol of international friendship.

Washington D.C. is in the middle of a weeks-long tradition: a festival celebrating the cherry blossoms. It all culminates with a Japanese street festival and parade.

This year the trees in D.C. bloomed early. They reached peak bloom a couple weeks ago, while in Japan they bloomed later than usual, just two days ago.

REICHARD: But now trouble is blooming … because the Potomac River is flooding some of the trees. So the National Park Service is stepping in to help preserve them. WORLD’s Kristen Flavin has our story.

PARK VISITOR: There was actually a story on the national news. So that's where I saw it first.

One unique cherry tree is getting a lot of attention.

PARK VISITOR: We're here to see Stumpy if we can actually find him. Its name is Stumpy. It's a cute little tree…

Cute? If Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tree had a cherry tree cousin, this would be it.

LINUS: I never thought it was a bad tree. 

Stumpy has a hollowed-out trunk and a single flowering limb.

PARK VISITOR: They call him the little tree that could, because he just has no inside, but yet he continues to flourish.

A million and a half people flock to the city every Spring to see the blossoms. And ever since the Stumpy craze went viral in 2020, many visitors made sure to snap their own picture with the tree.

But this year, people are not just taking pictures. They’re leaving tributes.

They bring cards and flowers of their own, placing them on the ground by Stumpy’s roots. The cards say things like “Thank you for the memories.”

PARK VISITOR: We had to come back and see some Stumpy.

This year is the last time Stumpy will bloom.

That’s because the National Park Service is going to cut it down—Stumpy and about 150 other cherry trees. Mike Litterst of the park service says it’s part of a multi-year restoration project beginning this summer to restore the sea wall holding back the Potomac River.

MIKE LITTERST: It inundates the roots of the cherry trees, resulting in the deaths of many trees, threatens infrastructure like sidewalks. It's even forced us to close the Jefferson Memorial from time to time as the water overflows the walkways leading to the site.

The project is expected to take about three years and cost more than $110 million dollars.

LITTERST: We will anchor those seawalls in bedrock to keep them from settling. We will raise the height of the seawall to keep the water where it’s supposed to be in the Tidal Basin. And we’ll widen the walkways as well to accommodate 21st century crowds.

The trees are part of a lineage representing an important part of America’s relationship with Japan.

LITTERST: The original gift were not mapped when they were planted, so we don't have a good idea of where they were located. Average lifespan of a cherry tree is really only about 40 or 50 years.

That history is something that Diana Parsell has studied for years. She wrote a book about it that was published last year.

DIANA PARSELL: She saw this wonderful match of this magnificent centuries old custom in Japan, and the growth of tourism in the nation's capital, and she said the city was at its best in the springtime.

She’s talking about a woman named Eliza Scidmore—a journalist in the 1800s who traveled extensively in Japan. Scidmore witnessed the development of Potomac Park.

PARSELL: She thought cherry trees were the most beautiful thing in the world. Why didn't we have them in America, and what better place than Washington and, she said, this new Potomac Park would be a perfect spot.

When President William Howard Taft was in the White House, Scidmore got a helping hand from First Lady Helen Taft and saw her idea realized. In 1912, the Japanese government sent 3-thousand cherry trees to America.

This was at a time when international tensions were rising, and many world powers were frightened of Japan’s military victories against both China and Russia.

PARSELL: This gift came on the heels of all that. And so you can see that it was as much a diplomatic move as it was a gesture of friendship.

And that gesture of friendship in 1912 was reciprocated after World War Two.

PARSELL: After the things were very tense, and then relations were restored, America helped Japan restore its stock of cherry trees.

Mike Litterst says the park service plans to honor the history of the trees by turning each cut tree into mulch that they will spread over the fragile tree roots of surviving trees.

But all the well-wishers haven’t seen the last of Stumpy:

LITTERST: Stumpy, in particular, our partners at the National Arboretum will take clippings of Stumpy and create genetic matches, essentially clones with the same genetic material as that tree and we'll plant those around the Tidal Basin when the work is finished.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Kristen Flavin. Additional reporting by Emma Perley.

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