All is not lost: Washington DC tidal basin cherry trees have roots in Portsmouth

Charles B. Doleac and Stephanie Seacord
Special to the Portsmouth Herald
Between the mature cherry trees and City Hall a second row of cherry trees descended from the famous Washington DC trees, line the bank of South Mill Pond.

PORTSMOUTH — It’s not unusual at this time of year for the news to be filled with images of the famous Washington cherry trees in full bloom, reflected picturesquely in the waters of the Tidal Basin and framing views of the Jefferson Memorial. This year, however, the annual story of the cherry blossoms was tinged with a new message: some of the trees would soon be cut down so that the National Park Service could rebuild the failing seawall and sidewalk between the Jefferson and FDR Memorials. There was public outcry that for any tree – especially “Stumpy,” believed to be one of the oldest – this season would be its last.

The Park Service hastened to assure the public that though the project they’ve been planning since 2019 would remove 158 of the nearly 3,700 Japanese flowering cherry trees on the National Mall, they would be replaced and the cut trees would be turned to mulch to nourish the other trees. They said cuttings from Stumpy would provide genetic material for the National Arboretum to preserve for growing future trees.

Meanwhile here in Portsmouth, there’s already genetic material from the Washington Tidal Basin cherry trees growing before our eyes. And as cherry blossom season approaches here, those who wait expectantly for them will have even more reason to celebrate when they bloom.

As it happens, the young cherry trees on the bank of South Mill Pond next to City Hall – and other cherry trees around the City and the state – are direct descendants of the Washington cherry trees. And that’s deliberate, especially thanks to a bit of cherry tree and Portsmouth history that was revealed by the Japanese Ambassador to the US in 2012 on the 100th anniversary of the gift of the cherry trees from Japan to the US.

The planting of the younger trees followed a tradition begun by Portsmouth’s Sister City of Nichinan, Japan. In 1985, Mayor Eileen Foley and the Mayor of Nichinan signed the agreement and celebrated the 80th anniversary of the Portsmouth Peace Treaty and the lead Japanese diplomat to the peace conference of 1905 Baron Jutaro Komura who was born there. Nichinan presented a cherry tree to Portsmouth that was planted in Haven Park. In 1993, Nichinan provided for more trees to be planted on the opposite bank of South Mill Pond.

In 2011, the Foreign Ministry of Japan announced their plan to send cherry tree seeds to cities across the US to commemorate the 2012 centennial of the cherry trees, arguably one of the most iconic nation-to-nation gifts ever made, with the possible exception of the gift of the Statue of Liberty from France. Then the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami diverted attention from the project until 2012 when the Ministry decided that they would distribute 700 cherry saplings to 32 cities around the country. At the same time, the Japan America Society of NH learned from the author of The Cherry Blossom Festival that the famous DC trees had a direct connection to Portsmouth and the Peace Treaty. Ann McClelland reported that according to his autobiography, Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki, who made the arrangements to ship the cherry trees to Washington, had done so because he had always wanted to thank the US for our assistance to Japan during the Russo-Japanese War.  As Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post, the major American contribution was to host the peace conference that produced the treaty that ended the war. That treaty, of course, is the Portsmouth Peace Treaty, negotiated and signed at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

Once the Japan-America Society of NH learned that history, its chair and founder Charles Doleac inquired with the Consulate General of Japan in Boston whether Portsmouth might be added to the distribution list. The Ministry agreed, making Portsmouth one of just three cities in New England alongside Boston and Pawtucket RI to receive 20 cherry trees grown as saplings by American Forest from cuttings from the Washington Yoshino trees. Three of those trees were planted ceremoniously on May 11, 2012 with the help of Japanese Consul General Takeshi Hikihara at key Treaty-related sites: Portsmouth Naval Shipyard where the Treaty was signed, Wentworth By the Sea Hotel where the delegates stayed as the management’s guests, and Strawbery Banke Museum, to represent residents including the Russian-Jewish emigres who lived in the Puddle Dock neighborhood and welcomed the diplomats. Other trees were planted at the John Paul Jones House Museum where the Portsmouth Peace Treaty exhibit is displayed and on the banks of South Mill Pond, in a row behind the Nichinan trees.

When the original distribution of trees was completed – to 36 cities, including Portsmouth – American Forests had dozens of “leftover” trees and was planning to use their growing site for different purposes. Again the Japan-America Society of NH stepped up and asked if they might take custody of some of the trees to launch the Portsmouth Peace Treaty Living Memorial Cherry Tree Project and plant the trees in Treaty-related sites around the state. The Japanese Foreign Ministry and American Forest, all agreed.

Since then, the Japan America Society of NH has planted trees in Portsmouth at each of the public schools, at Temple Israel and Christ Church; and in Dublin, Hanover, Lancaster, Littleton, Manchester, Meredith and Milford. Each tree represents the Treaty as an important piece of New Hampshire history and the citizen diplomacy that had kept the diplomats at the table in 1905 and helped President Theodore Roosevelt win the Nobel Peace Prize. Each time the story is told there are more requests for cherry trees and to become part of the annual celebration of Portsmouth Peace Treaty Day and the Governor’s Proclamation and bellringing that go with it. In 2022, teachers from Auburn and Windham who attended a lecture about the Treaty at the NH Council on the Social Studies conference asked for trees for their schools.

All cherry trees are subject to the consequences of drought and flooding. As the National Park Service knows so well.

So the lesson of this year’s Cherry Blossom Festival should not be despair over the loss of the trees. For in Portsmouth, the legacy of the DC cherry trees and the reason they are there, is a trust being carefully tended by the Portsmouth Peace Treaty Living Memorial Cherry Tree Project.

Cherry blossoms – and cherry trees – might be fragile, but historic connections and legacies endure.

Special to the Portsmouth Herald by Charles B. Doleac and Stephanie Seacord, Japan-America Society of New Hampshire and the Portsmouth Peace Treaty Forum [].