The third in our series of silly altered DC postcards…
Each spring, thousands make their annual pilgrimage to DC to gaze in awe at the riotous blooming of the Japanese cherry trees. Poet Pablo Neruda, distinctly not Japanese, once wrote, “I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.” Although we think that’s pretty hot, it has nothing to do with the history of the cherry trees in Washington, DC.
The first shipment of Japanese cherry trees arrived in DC in 1910, a gift from the city of Tokyo intended as a gesture of friendship and goodwill between the people of Japan and the United States. When the trees arrived, however, they were so infested with insects and parasitic worms that there was no easy way to re-gift them to another country. So President Taft agreed to have them incinerated in a heaping big bonfire. Many thought this was no way to accept a gift.
After much diplomacy to smooth over the embarrassing burning of the gift, in 1912 the people of Japan sent a new bug-free shipment of 3,020 cherry trees, and these were planted along the Potomac River. First Lady Helen Herron Taft and the wife of the Japanese ambassador planted the first two cherry trees on the northern bank of the Tidal Basin, and workmen planted the rest around the Tidal Basin and East Potomac Park. (The two original trees are still there, near the John Paul Jones statue at the south end of 17th Street.)
In 1965 Japan gave First Lady Lady Bird Johnson (that’s a mouthful) 3,800 more trees to plant, and today there are 3,750 trees of 16 varieties on national parkland in DC.
This year marks the 102nd anniversary of the original gift of friendship from Japan, although on the 39th anniversary, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, so how’s that for friendship? Four days later, four cherry trees were chopped down in suspected retaliation. The culprits were never caught. To prevent further attacks against the trees, the Cherry Blossom Festival was suspended during World War II (resuming in 1947), and the trees were referred to for the remainder of the war as the “Oriental” flowering cherry trees.
This wasn’t the end of the cherry tree assaults though. In 1999, the trees were attacked once more. But this time they found the vandals – beavers! The beavers were forcefully removed from the Tidal Basin, and fences were erected around some of the more defenseless trees.
If you’d like to take a gander at these celebrity cherry trees, you can find them in three National Park Service locations: around the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park, in East Potomac Park (Hains Point) and on the grounds of the Washington Monument. (For more info on the varieties of cherry trees and their locations, click here.)
Some random facts about the DC cherry blossoms:
- The National Cherry Blossom Festival is scheduled every year based on when the National Park horticulturalists predict peak bloom, but nature doesn’t always cooperate. The weather determines when the trees will bloom, and sometimes it’s not during the festival.
- Most of the trees are of the Yoshino variety, and the average blooming date for the Yoshino cherry trees is April 4.
- Peak bloom is defined as the day on which 70 percent of the blossoms of the Yoshino trees open.
- The earliest blooms were on March 15 in 1990.
- The latest blooms were on April 18 in 1958.
- The Kwanzan cherry tree, the second-most-numerous variety between the Tidal Basin and Hains Point, blooms two weeks after the Yoshino trees. So if you’re a late bloomer, you still have a shot at seeing some blossoms.
To commemorate this perennial event, please submit your very own cherry blossom haiku by email or in the comments below. We’ll read them all and publish the best of them.
Here are two to get you started…
tourists swarm around
cherry trees in luscious bloom
as if sedated
the beaver vandals
hide in the day, but at night
they eat your blossoms
J. Edgar Hoover, longtime Director of the FBI – the man who spent his life putting others behind bars – spends his eternity behind bars at Congressional Cemetery on the west bank of the Anacostia River in Southeast Washington.
The only civil servant to be honored with a state funeral, Hoover served as the head of the FBI for 48 years, from 1924 until his death in 1972. Though his legacy is tainted because of the illegal methods of infiltration, planted evidence and burglaries he condoned, his name is carved in stone at the FBI headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue.
A master of blackmail (not to mention bigotry), Hoover loved illegally wire-tapping people to get dirt on them, especially those he detested. He spent countless agent hours and taxpayer dollars snooping on Martin Luther King, determined to prove him dangerous by proving him immoral. And he hated author John Steinbeck so much (convinced that he was a red Communist) that he had the IRS audit him every year.
To J. Edgar, the highest realms of patriotism and virtue were reflected in his personal prejudices and wholesome lifestyle.
A lifelong bachelor and creature of habit, J. Edgar ate lunch at the same hotel restaurant every workday for 20 years with the same companion, his lifelong friend and FBI protégé Clyde Tolson. (The Mayflower Hotel’s restaurant is now named Edgar Bar & Kitchen in his honor.) He never strayed from his daily order – chicken soup, white toast, half a grapefruit, cottage cheese and Bibb lettuce – and he never tipped back a martini. A teetotaler, Hoover forbade the use of intoxicating beverages by any FBI agent, on or off the job.
In his quest to get “subversive” Americans, J. Edgar didn’t have time for frivolity. Even a party song like the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” aroused suspicion. For two and a half years he had his underlings investigate the song to find hidden sexual messages. The process included interviews with author Richard Berry and members of The Kingsmen as well as repeated listenings of the song at various speeds. The verdict: The study found no evidence of obscenity, concluding that the song was “unintelligible at any speed.”
A DC native, J. Edgar was reportedly born in 1895 at 413 C Street SE, later known as 413 Seward Square SE and now the site of the Capitol Hill United Methodist Church. We say “reportedly” because, unlike his two siblings, there is no record of his birth. As a teen, he competed on the debate team and sang in the school choir at Central High School, now known as Cardozo. He later obtained both his law degree and his Masters of Law at George Washington University.
From 1940 until his death in 1972, J. Edgar lived at 4936 30th Place NW (Forest Hills), where he kept files on Supreme Court justices, members of Congress and U.S. presidents. When the current owners moved in, they had the bulletproof-glass windows removed.
When Hoover died, Tolson – his lunch buddy, life partner and possible lover – inherited his estate and moved into the house. Tolson is also buried at Congressional Cemetery, a few yards from J. Edgar.
Burial sites are still available to the general public.
The second installation in our silly series of altered DC postcards that we’d like to see on the souvenir shop racks…
A frequent refrain of those touring the real Roman Catacombs is “Hey! I wanna see a dead body.” At the replicated Roman Catacombs in DC, you’re in luck. Deep beneath the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America in upper Northeast DC lie the remains of a martyred 7-year-old from the second century, St. Innocent. How does a second-grader become a martyr for his faith? We’ll never know. What we do know is that he was found buried with two adults, ostensibly his parents – some parents enter their kids in pageants, others push for martyrdom – and that his body was found holding a palm frond, which marked him as a martyr.
Clad in an elaborate beaded dress, St. Innocent also wears a wig and a wax mask to hide and protect his skull. Given the dress and the mask’s plucked eyebrows and pink lip gloss, you’ve got to wonder how the little martyr would have felt if his schoolmates ever saw him in this getup (girls = yucky; martyrdom = cool).
St. Benignus, a Roman soldier who was beheaded for his faith, is also entombed here. Well, most of him is – his skull is still in Italy. Both saints were originally buried in the real Roman Catacombs, 900 miles of underground passageways where Christians buried their dead.