Cherry Blossoms As Botanical Diplomacy

Spring has sprung and thousands of tourists are flocking to the nation's capital for the annual Cherry Blossom festival. But there is a rich story behind the famous tree that connects the United States to Japan. Guest host Jacki Lyden talks with Adrian Higgins about his feature article "Hidden Zen" in this week's Washington Post Magazine.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

Now, it time to open up the pages of The Washington Post Magazine, something we do almost each week for engaging stories about the way we live now.

A hundred years ago, the mayor of Tokyo gave this nation and its capital, Washington, D.C., a gift. Thousands of flowering Japanese cherry trees, many of which were planted on March the 27th, 1912.

When you walk around these old trees at the Tidal Basin here in Washington, they seem almost anthropomorphic, knobby-kneed, bedecked branches spreading over the waters, if to scoop it up; bridal veils of pink blossoms that make every human parading underneath them more serene.

The cherry trees have remained a feature of Washington life and a rite of spring, no matter how early they bloom, but they also represent the profound effect of Japanese horticulture on America's gardens and landscapes.

Garden writer Adrian Higgins of The Washington Post joins us now. His cover story for the magazine this week is called "Hidden Zen: What's in Your Garden May Surprise You."

Adrian Higgins, thank you so much for joining.

ADRIAN HIGGINS: Hello, Jacki. Thank you for having me.

LYDEN: You know, I called a garden writer, but really, you are a very fine writer. I want to read one sentence. You say here that: The cherry blossoms blooming each year, as they do, 100 years now, are as fragile and unstoppable as the sunrise. And they do come from the land of the rising sun.

Tell people who might not have seen them, you know, what are these things, exactly? Why are they so important?

HIGGINS: Well, the ones that have just finished blooming are called Yoshino and they've been cultivated in Japan for literally hundreds of years. Botanically, they're known as Prunus yedoensis. They're a gorgeous single-flowered, almost pendant plant that opens sort of white and then sort of turns sort of a blush pink as they age and the whole point is that they're very brief. They're this sort of - the signal that spring has begun and it's this moment to rejoice that, you know, we have this symbolic and actual rebirth of the planet of Earth, you know.

LYDEN: It's amazing that America has this at all, but - you know, I'm a gardener and I found out so much reading this about how all of our gardens have been influenced by not only the cherry trees, but the country and the horticulture. Japan was, for centuries, known as the Hermit Kingdom. It banished missionaries to the island. It resisted the Dutch, allowing them just to make a couple visits a year.

So how, in the end, did so many Japanese plants come to America?

HIGGINS: Well, this is really fascinating and something that we don't really think about. We think of the cherry trees as the quintessential Japanese elegant, serene plant and we think of them, perhaps, in Washington as that sort of wonderful synthesis of American and Japanese sort of flora. And, in a way, sort of a metaphor for America because it's this wonderful embrace of something that's alien and then it becomes something that's native.

What we don't realize is that many, many plants in our gardens actually came from Japan and came quite recently from Japan, and I'm thinking of things like the mophead hydrangea that we think of as being like a seashore shrub of the summer at Cape Cod, for example, or camellias or...

LYDEN: Rhododendrons?

HIGGINS: Some rhododendrons. Many came from the Himalayas, but some came from Japan, as did some roses, the Rugosa rose being a classic example.

LYDEN: And azaleas, which Washington stands for.

HIGGINS: Azaleas, indeed, you know, which is - you know, the point is that we think of this as being part of an ingrained American landscape, that it's part of our actual and sort of psychological landscape, that we know that the azaleas will bloom from, you know, South Carolina to New York and above over the next few weeks. And it's sort of its own rite of spring.

But, you know, these things were alien to Americans just 100 years ago and you can imagine, when they first came to America, what people thought of these amazing shrubs that were just completely covered in these blossoms - something astonishing and amazing.

LYDEN: I think I skipped your point that Emily Dickinson would not have recognized these plants and she wouldn't have planted them in her own garden.

HIGGINS: No. I mean, in my piece, I sort of talk about her garden because it's a good example of a documented garden before the Japanese flora came to the United States, so she would have had things like daylilies, perhaps, from China. She would have had columbine. She would have had foxgloves, all the sort of old world and Native American plants that people had in that early time. But, no, she would not have known anything like the richness of the landscape that we know and take for granted.

LYDEN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News, and we're talking about the cherry blossoms and Japan's historical link to our own horticulture.

Adrian Higgins' story is called "Hidden Zen" and it's the cover story of this weekend's magazine.

So how did all these plants arrive in America, as you say, relatively recently?

HIGGINS: Well, as you know, you talk of Japan as the Hermit Kingdom and for, you know, at least 200 years, it was - I mean, it personified the term, xenophobic. It just didn't want anything to do with foreigners because in the 15th century, the Portuguese missionaries showed up and the Japanese rulers could see what was happening in China, which was this Christian proselytizing, which they definitely didn't want. So they created this very closed and feudal system that only existed or, rather, connected to the West by a thread and that thread was the Dutch East India Company, which had a few people living on a manmade island off the port of Nagasaki in the western part of Japan.

LYDEN: And so one of the people that you say is really instrumental is a man named von Siebold, Franz von Siebold.

HIGGINS: Yes. Between 1690 and the early 19th century, there were three physicians for the East India Company who were also botanists. You know, this was at a time when, to be a medical person, you also had to know plants. So von Siebold was the last of these three and, certainly, the most influential.

LYDEN: And you actually held his book in your hands at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington.

HIGGINS: Yeah. He did a book called "Flora Japonica," obviously, and it introduced to the West 150 plates of these amazing Japanese plants that we now, as I say, take for granted. But until this book was done with a colleague called Zuccarini in Munich, the West had not really seen these plants. So - yes - as part of the research for this story, I went to see his "Flora Japonica" and, you know, one gingerly opens the pages and looks at the plates.

And just to see these plants that we now, you know, take - as I say - for granted, like the mophead hydrangea or something called the spike corylopsis, the japonica, the camellia japonica, it really sort of sent a chill up my spine to see these plants and to think that this was the first time that we in the West had actually seen these plants.

LYDEN: Are we going to continue to build on Japanese horticulture here?

HIGGINS: Well, we are because, as part of this, I also talked to a hybridizer at the National Arboretum, the agricultural research service, who is continuing to use, you know, what they call germplasm, you know, 400 species and varieties of Japanese cherry that are still unknown to us in the garden and are being part of a continuing breeding program where, for years to come, for decades to come, this material will be used to bring us bigger, better, taller, prettier cherries, if that's possible.

LYDEN: And that's not blasphemy. I mean, the whole notion that we want green space - is that something we can attribute to the Japanese? The public square of green.

HIGGINS: I think the idea that we revere public space is certainly a Japanese sensibility and the ritual of seeing the cherry blossoms is certainly - or the azaleas or the Virginia bluebells or the trillium - all that, I think, is wrapped up in seeing sort of the Zen value of flowers.

LYDEN: Adrian Higgins is a writer for The Washington Post and his story, "Hidden Zen," was featured in this week's Washington Post Magazine and he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington studios.

Thank you and I hope you got out to see those blossoms.

HIGGINS: Thank you, Jacki. Yes. I've got some at home, so I don't need to travel that far.

LYDEN: You are a lucky man.

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