The blossoms arrived early this year in Washington, D.C. And though the beauty is already past, the annual Cherry Blossom Festival forges on-- through the end of April. It includes the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Japanese officials giving the trees to the city, along with a special release of a new cherry tree variety. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agriculture Research Service (ARS) is behind the effort. The American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, and Soil Science Society of America share a stakeholder relationship with ARS.
New Cherry Tree Variety and 100th Anniversary of Original Gift of Trees
By Teri Barr with courtesy to the Agricultural Research Service-USDA and Associated Press
Washington is celebrating 100 years of its famous cherry trees this spring and at the same time a new cherry tree variety named for former First Lady Helen Taft is being revealed. 3,000 trees were originally given to the city with Helen Herron Taft and Viscountess Iwa Chinda, wife of the Japanese Ambassador, planting the first two at the Tidal Basin in a ceremony on March 27, 1912. National Park Service Chief Horticulturist Rob DeFeo says more than 100 of the century old trees survive, which isn't typical, since most cherry trees only live 50 years. The original trees are near the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial, while the others have been replaced or grown from the original trees genetic line.
The “Helen Taft” variety is part of a series of flowering cherry tree varieties being developed by the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, which is part of ARS. The new variety was created by crossing a Yoshino cherry (Prunus × yedoensis) with a Taiwan cherry tree (Prunus campanulata). The Yoshino parent, currently growing at the arboretum, is a clone of a tree originally planted by Taft and Chinda.
“Helen Taft” has large, pale pink single flowers that turn darker in the center as the flowers mature. While most Yoshino flowering trees’ blossoms are white or fade to white, the “Helen Taft” flowers retain their pink color. It can also grow to as much as 35 feet wide over 30 years.
"This is an invaluable addition to the cadre of ornamental cherry trees,” says U.S. National Arboretum Director Colien Hefferan. “Unfortunately, cherry trees have a narrow genetic base, especially in this country. That can make them vulnerable to attack by a single insect, disease or environmental stress.”
Ornamental cherry trees have a beauty and range of sizes and habits to serve urban gardeners well, according to Hefferan. Superior urban trees help provide energy savings, cleaner air, better storm water management, and higher property values for home owners. Landscape plants, including ornamental trees, are a $14.3 billion-a-year industry in the United States.
“That's what makes the arboretum’s research—expanding the genetic base by creating hybrids with species not often grown here—so important,” said geneticist Margaret Pooler, who runs the cherry tree breeding program at the U.S. National Arboretum. “Stronger, well-adapted cherries also require less fertilizer and pesticides, making them even more functional in the landscape. The arboretum fulfills an important role with its long-term breeding program to improve ornamental cherry trees.” And with 76 different varieties, the U.S. National Arboretum is home to Washington area’s most diverse array of ornamental cherry trees.
The U.S. National Arboretum also helped preserve the genetic lineage of the surviving Yoshino cherry trees from the original 1912 gift by propagating 500 trees from it. The new trees were presented to the National Park Service in 1999. “Helen Taft” is the second variety in the First Lady series. The initial, a 25-foot-tall, upright tree with dark pink, single, semi-pendulous flowers, was released in 2003 and is named “First Lady.”
Meantime, the average cherry blossom flower lasts just 4 to 10 days, depending on the weather. DeFeo says, "Like life, the blossoms come, they bloom, they're gone. Short but sweet?" And though the blooms are complete, the celebration continues through April 27. It's five weeks instead of the usual 16 days with D.C. area museums featuring exhibits and restaurants offering cherry-inspired dishes and drinks. And so this special time lasts beyond the festival, both the United States and Japan are creating commemorative postal stamps to mark the anniversary.
Historical materials documenting Japan’s gift of cherry trees to the city of Washington, D.C., are available in the Special Collections of the National Agricultural Library and online at: http://riley.nal.usda.gov/cherrytrees.html .