Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Research on Cherry Blossom Trees

Photo credit: New Voices co-blogger Emily Norton

Last week I wrote about research going on at the National Arboretum and asked if anyone knew more about it. Turns out, someone did.

Dr. Margaret Pooler studies flowering cherry trees at the National Arboretum. She works on the genetics, breeding and evaluation of species. She is also involved in generating newer varieties of cherry trees - trees that are cold resistant, produce bigger blooms, are disease resistant etc. Research like hers has biological, environmental, and even diplomatic implications.
"Society will benefit from this research in several ways. By selecting for disease and pest tolerance, these new varieties will hopefully require less input of pesticides in production and in the landscape. The use of underutilized species in our crosses will broaden the diversity of flowering cherries in the landscape and allow more choices in terms of plant size, habit, flowering time, etc. Plus it is hard to measure but easy to see (based on visits this week to the Tidal Basin) the effect that cherry blossoms in spring have on society."
I couldn't agree with her more. But, how could this research possibly help us diplomatically?

The National Cherry Blossom festival is celebrated every year* to mark the gifting of 3,000 cherry trees from the mayor of Tokyo to the city of Washington DC. Less known than the origin of the stunning trees is that the original shipment of trees from Japan had to be destroyed

The 2,000 trees that originally arrived were found to be infected with insects and were deemed unfit for planting by the US Agriculture department. President Taft gave his consent for the trees to be burned. A potential diplomatic kerfluffle was avoided by letters from the Secretary of State to the Japanese ambassador.

A new batch of 3,020 trees was specially bred and shipped to Washington. This group was not only healthy, but included 12 different varieties of cherry trees.

On March 27, 1912, First Lady Helen Taft and Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador planted the first two trees along the northern bank of the Tidal basin. In 1915, the U.S. reciprocated with a gift of dogwoods to the people of Japan. In both 1952 and 1982, the U.S. was able to reinvigorate the original Japanese grove. (According to Dr. Pooler, it takes a cherry seedling 2-3 years to flower and then it is evaluated for at least a decade in the field.)

For more information about societal impacts and the history of the tidal basin cherry trees, check out this timeline from the National Park Service .

And for those in the DC area interested in the biological aspects, Dr. Pooler will be giving a lecture/demonstration of how the arboretum's programs are creating new and improved varieties of flowering cherry trees on Sunday, April 5.

*The National Cherry Blossom festival features (in addition to the gorgeous blooms) a parade, a kite festival, a lantern lighting ceremony, sushi and sake tasting and much more. Since 1994, the festival has chosen over 50 young people to serve as goodwill ambassadors. They act as cultural liasons for the festival while promoting friendship between the United States and Japan.

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