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April 17, 2024 9 mins

Cherry blossom trees are so celebrated because their beautiful blooms are so short-lived. Learn about these trees (and how so many wound up in Washington, D.C.) in this episode of BrainStuff, based on this article: https://people.howstuffworks.com/culture-traditions/cultural-traditions/cherry-blossom.htm

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Speaker 1 (00:01):
Welcome to Brainstuff, the production of iHeartRadio. Hey brain Stuff,
Lauren Vogelbaum. Here in Japan, the annual spring explosion of
blushing pink cherry blossoms has been celebrated for over a
thousand years, and now there are cherry blossom festivals around
the world in Sweden, Canada, Spain, and Washington, d C,

(00:23):
just to name a few. Every spring, some million and
a half tourists visit d C to witness the fleeting
flowering of more than three thousand, seven hundred cherry blossom
trees encircling the tidal basin, a reservoir in the middle
of the city with West Potomac Park and many monuments
around its banks. For the article, this episode is based
on How Stuff Work. Spoke with John Malott, a former

(00:44):
president of the Japan America Society of Washington, d C
and a former Director of Japanese Affairs at the US
State Department who served diplomatic roles in Kobe and Osaka, Japan.
He said, it's very, very picturesque. You have the blue
of the water and the blue of the sky. Then
you have the whitish pang of the cherry blossoms against
the incredible white of the Jefferson Memorial in the distance.

(01:06):
It's very beautiful and also very peaceful. The story of
how and why thousands of cherry blossom trees were gifted
from Japan more than one hundred years ago and planted
in America's capital city is fascinating. But first let's learn
a little bit more about the cherry blossom tree and
its history. Flowering cherry trees are native to a number
of places with temperate climates around the world, but in

(01:30):
Japan these have been cultivated and celebrated since around eight
hundred CE, which is when they and their blossoms, called
sukura in Japanese, first began to appear in poetry and
picture scrolls. They're related to the cherry trees that we
humans get fruit from, but whereas cherry fruit trees have
been bred for their tasty fruit, but cherry blossom trees

(01:50):
have been bred as ornamentals, that is, for those beautiful flowers.
Most varieties do still grow fruit, but they're small and
not delicious. The birds and other non human animals will
eat them, though they are. Flowers range in color from
white to deep pink, depending on the variety. While they
typically only live about thirty to forty years. With care

(02:11):
and good conditions, they can go much longer. More on
that later. For more than a millennium, people in Japan
have celebrated the arrival of spring with parties called hanami,
meaning flower gazing. The idea is to have a picnic
of varying complexity out under the blooming trees to enjoy
the blossoms while they last. A cherry blossom tree only

(02:32):
blooms for about ten days every year, just as the
weather begins to warm up after the cold of winter.
So in Japan from about mid March through April, families
and groups of friends vie for picnic spots under a
canopy of pink blossoms, and companies throw rowdy, sake fueled
parties that run laid into the night. Malott said they

(02:53):
get the lowliest staff member to go out early in
the morning and stake out a spot under the trees.
The poor guy has to be there all day, which
doesn't actually sound all that unpleasant, but I'm sure it
has its low points. The Japanese Meteorological Agency tracks the
so called cherry blossom front as bloom worthy warmer weather
slowly makes its way from southern to northern Japan from

(03:14):
March through May each year, and offers predictions for when
the peaks will be in different areas so that people
can plan their hanami. But okay, so these trees are pretty,
But how did sakura become such a thing in Japanese culture?
As with any cultural thing, there isn't a single answer,
but a number of dovetailing reasons. Their early spring blooming

(03:36):
coincides with a season of renewal and new beginnings In Japan.
April is the start of the new school year for
kids and the start of the new fiscal year for companies,
and part of the draw of the blossoms is the
knowledge that they'll soon be gone. That blooming window is
so short, partially because cherry blossom trees shed their petals
while they're still springy and colorful, not once they're faded

(03:58):
or wilted. The bright pet can create lovely clouds in
the breeze and on bodies of water. This simple fact
of botany has become symbolic for the beautiful but ephemeral
nature of all life. A malot said, because they fall
off the tree and die at the peak of their bloom.
Whenever you see a cherry blossom in a Japanese movie

(04:19):
or TV show, that usually means that someone young has died.
If the heroine is in the hospital getting sicker and
sicker and they cut to a shot of a cherry
blossom falling to the ground, you know she's gone. It's
a symbol that carries a lot of weight. During World
War Two, the planes flown by Japanese Kamakazi pilots were
named after another word for cherry blossom Oka. The young

(04:43):
cadets who piloted the planes were also called cherry blossoms,
and their uniforms and aircraft were stamped with the image
of a single pink flower. The Japanese word natsukashi describes
a nostalgic feeling of happiness tinged with sadness, and is
associated with cherry blossom season as a whole. In addition
to being a time of renewal, it's a time of
endings too. A school graduations, for example, are held in March.

(05:07):
A Malot reported that they're often accompanied by and I
quote tear jerker songs about cherry blossom's falling. You can
still find wild flowering cherry trees around the world but
most cherry blossom trees grown are cultivated varieties from Japan
or hybrids grown using trees from Japan. A sum like
many in Brazil, were brought over by Japanese immigrants. Others,

(05:30):
like many in Australia and the ones in Washington, d C,
were gifts from the Japanese government. On March twenty eighth
of nineteen twelve, a one paragraph article appeared in The
Washington Post with the underwhelming headline Missus Taft plants a tree.
The day before, first Lady Nelly Taft, a wife of
President William Howard Taft, had planted the first two cherry

(05:52):
blossom trees in Washington, d C. As gifts from the
Mayor of Tokyo. And that's the story that most people
know that the entire chair ry blossom tradition in DC
started with a Japanese gift in nineteen twelve, But that's
not the half of it. The real story starts with
what Eliza Skidmore, a photographer and writer who was the
first woman to sit on the board of the National
Geographic Society. Skidmore traveled extensively in Japan and came back

(06:16):
to d C in eighteen eighty five, convinced that cherry
blossom trees should be planted in Potomac Park. This was
a then new bit of land that had been under
the Potomac River until an engineering project to protect the
city from flooding was enacted earlier in the eighteen eighties.
It changed the banks of the river, created the title Basin,
and left the city with this new stretch of land.

(06:39):
Skidmore later wrote, since they had to plant something in
that great stretch of raw reclaimed ground by the river bank,
they might as well plant the most beautiful thing in
the world, the Japanese cherry tree. Skidmore campaigned tirelessly for
more than twenty five years, petitioning every president in DC
official she could get a hold of to plant cherry
blossom tree, but her idea was ignored. Then one David

(07:04):
Fairchild came along. A Fairchild worked for the brand new
US Department of Agriculture as a plant explorer who traveled
the world looking for plant species that could be cultivated
in America. While in Japan, he also fell for cherry blossoms.
In nineteen oh nine, Fairchild showed that cherry blossom trees
thrived in the temperate climate of the DC area, which

(07:26):
emboldened Skidmore to write one more letter to the new
First Lady, proposing to pay for the trees herself. To
her amazement, Nellie Taft replied two days later, writing I've
taken the matter up and promised the trees. That's when
a wealthy Japanese chemist by the name of doctor Jokichi
Takamine got involved. He was the first person to isolate

(07:47):
adrenaline by the way. He lived in the US and
had campaigned for cherry blossom trees in New York City.
Skidmore told him about the First Lady's promise, and Takamine
came up with the idea of making DC's cherry blossom
trees again from Japan. Unfortunately, the first shipment of two
thousand trees was plagued with insects and disease and had
to be burned. But two months later, on March twenty

(08:11):
sixth of nineteen twelve, a shipment of threeenty twenty healthy
trees arrived. Missus Taft planted the first two the very
next day, and Skidmore was there to witness the fruition
of a decade's long dream. Now cherry blossom trees line
the tidal basin and other parts of the park, as
well as other areas of the city, and incredibly, a

(08:32):
few of them have been there this whole time. The
two original trees planted by Nelly Taft one hundred and
twelve years ago are still standing, along with a handful
of others from that shipment. Many others are related to
those first trees, brought to new life through cultivated clippings.
The park's arborists keep a database containing the personal health

(08:52):
record of each tree. If you go, be aware that
the trees are delicate. It's actually illegal to touch them.
Just enjoyed with your other senses and from a respectful distance.
Today's episode is based on the article The Very Short
Symbolic Life of the Cherryblossom on how stuffworks dot com,

(09:15):
written by Dave Ruse. A brain Stuff is production of
iHeartRadio in partnership with how stuffworks dot Com and is
produced by Tyler klang Afore more podcasts from iHeartRadio, visit
the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to
your favorite shows.

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