'Dogwood Diplomacy:' U.S. To Send Japan 3,000 Trees

One hundred years ago, Japan gifted some 3,000 cherry trees to the United States in a gesture of friendship. They now flower each spring around the tidal basin in Washington, D.C. On Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the U.S. will return the favor. Audie Cornish talks with Richard Olsen of the U.S. National Arboretum about the plan to send 3,000 American dogwoods to Japan.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. Many days when you're secretary of state, you have to make tough diplomatic decisions. But sometimes you get to bestow big diplomatic gifts.

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: Tonight, I am pleased to announce a gift of 3,000 dogwood trees for the people of Japan from the American people.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

CORNISH: That was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last night at a dinner with the prime minister of Japan here in Washington. One hundred years after Japan gave the U.S. 3,000 cherry trees, the U.S. is returning the favor with dogwoods. And that means a lot of work for Richard Olsen. He's an urban tree breeder with the U.S. National Arboretum. Richard Olsen, thanks for coming into the studio.

DR. RICHARD OLSEN: It's my pleasure.

CORNISH: So you've been consulting with the State Department on this. And as an urban tree breeder, are you the guy actually growing these trees? How does it work?

OLSEN: No. Actually, I was brought in to help work out the logistics of getting 3,000 trees over to Japan from the United States.

CORNISH: So before we get into the logistics, let's take a step back and talk history. What were the circumstances of Japan's initial gift of 3,000 cherry blossom trees 100 years ago?

OLSEN: The initial gift when it was received around 1910, unfortunately, they were heavily diseased and full of insects. And so it had to be destroyed, which actually gave rise to our modern plant quarantine laws. So the trees on the Tidal Basin are actually the second batch. So flash-forward 100 years when we want to reciprocate with these flowering dogwoods, we don't, obviously, want to send a bunch of diseased trees and insect-ridden trees.

CORNISH: So what does that mean? Does that mean different varieties? Does that mean you've got like a lab full of little seedlings that you're trying to figure out which one will survive in that climate?

OLSEN: Well, luckily, we have a really advanced nursery industry in the United States. The flowering dogwood is a very popular flowering tree in the nursery industry. So we have a lot of clean stock to work with. But the plants, based on quarantine laws, have to be inspected here in United States and then shipped. And they'll have to be inspected by Japanese authorities when they arrive.

CORNISH: Now, how do you actually move 3,000 trees in the end? Is this going to be on a ship, by a flight FedEx? What happens?

OLSEN: We have 3,000 plants that will be divided up into different parts of Japan. Obviously, the memorial gardens around Fukushima, a memorial garden in Tokyo, and then the third batch will be divided up to various areas in Japan. So it won't be one single large shipment. And ideally, because of the - back to the inspection and quarantine laws, it's easier to send material as a dormant. It's not growing. It has no leaves. And it has to be what we call bare root. We can't have soil on the roots.

CORNISH: Richard, what's it like for you to be a part of it? I mean, there's a lot of arborists and people in the past who have been a part of this diplomacy through plants. And, you know, what's it like for you to actually be helping this?

OLSEN: Well, I think you think ahead, and you're planting something for future generations to enjoy. And trees and plants are one of the few things that they appreciate in value. You plant it, and then over time, they actually grow and become more valuable. And to be part of something as altruistic as this and noble, just the act of planting trees is very exciting.

CORNISH: Richard Olsen, thank you so much for talking with us.

OLSEN: Thank you. It's my pleasure.

CORNISH: Richard Olsen is a research geneticist with the U.S. National Arboretum and a consultant to the State Department on the gift of 3,000 dogwoods to Japan.

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