Japan’s first gift of cherry trees to Washington, D.C., had to be destroyed because of insect infestation. This international incident led to the passing of the Plant Quarantine Act of 1912 and to a second shipment of trees.
The introduction of cherry trees transformed the National Mall area and played a very important role in protecting American agriculture from the negative impact of insects and plant diseases imported from abroad. The story begins with David Fairchild, Director of the Office of Seed Introduction at the Department of Agriculture. In 1908, he gave cherry saplings to each school in the District to plant on Arbor Day and expressed his desire to transform Washington into a field of cherry trees.
Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore heard his Arbor Day address and decided to launch a campaign to purchase cherry trees. She wrote to First Lady Helen Taft who championed the project for an area beside the Potomac River known as the Speedway. The Japanese were informed of the project through diplomatic channels. Jokichi Takamine secured the support of his friend and Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki.
The first group of trees arrived in Seattle on December 10, 1909, and was sent by train to Washington, D.C. They were inspected by a team of scientists from the Department of Agriculture led by Charles L. Marlatt. They determined that the trees had an infestation of scale insects and root gall and recommended their destruction. On January 28, 1910, President Taft approved the destruction of the trees, and they were burned.
Agriculture Secretary James Wilson and his staff used this situation to highlight risks American agriculture from imports. Their scientific evidence reinforced the concerns of individual states, 39 of which had already passed legislation, and which had sought a national plant quarantine law as early as 1898. A result was the Plant Quarantine Act of 1912 which went into effect on August 20, 1912. This act established the Federal Horticultural Board and enabled plant quarantines.
Following the destruction of the first cherry trees, Japan offered replacements which were fumigated before they were shipped to the United States. The first of these trees were planted by the First Lady and the wife of the Japanese Ambassador. Some 11 years later, Mayor Ozaki of Tokyo and his family came to Washington and visited the grove of cherry trees.