3-Minute Interview: Ann McClellan, on the history of the National Cherry Blossom Festival

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People,Eric P. Newcomer

McClellan has written two books, "The Cherry Blossom Festival: Sakura Celebration" and "Cherry Blossoms, The Official Book of the National Cherry Blossom Festival." She talks about the history of the festival, which ends on Sunday.

Why Japanese trees?

After Adm. Matthew C. Perry negotiated a treaty in 1884 with Japan, the world went crazy for everything Japanese -- artwork, they loved the plants they were discovering, azaleas, lilies. It was the first time Japan was treated like a bona fide member of the international community. It was their way of thanking the United States. They could have given azaleas, but what they wanted to do was give something of themselves. The sakura is considered the people's flower.

Who had the idea of bringing cherry blossoms to the United States?

Eliza Scidmore -- she was a very amazing woman. She was a journalist, a society reporter here in Washington. She wrote books about India and Japan and Indonesia. Eliza visited Japan, and she saw the trees blooming.

How did it happen?

For 20 years she went to successive superintendents of buildings and grounds without much success. Then she met a couple that helped her convince Helen Taft to support the effort. It was when Helen Taft became the first lady in March 1909 that things really began to come together. ... It was a gift from the city of Tokyo to the city of Washington. The Japanese sent two shipments. The first was judged to be disease-filled because the Japanese wanted to send older trees. That whole shipment was burned. Then, in 1912, 3,000 trees were shipped. Today, about 100 of those trees remain.

During World War II was there opposition to the trees?

The night of Pearl Harbor, four cherry trees where chopped down. But D.C. residents formed citizen bands to defend them.

- Eric P. Newcomer

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