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Washington's Cherry Blossom Trees: The Complicated Roots

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Washington’s cherry blossoms have become an iconic image of springtime in the nation’s capital. And while the trees can be appreciated solely for the ethereal beauty they cast on the shores of the Potomac River, the historical roots of the trees are more complicated.

Ann McClellan, a recognized expert on the trees who has written two books on Washington’s annual festival celebrating the blossoms, told the ABC News/Yahoo! News series Power Players that the first trees given to Washington from Japan in 1910 were a symbol of international friendship.

“When they gave the gift of trees they were really giving something of themselves, because they were grateful to the United States for brokering the treaty of Portsmouth, which ended the Russo-Japanese War,” McClellan said. “It was the first time Japan was treated as a bona fide member of the international community.”

The trees were given in honor of then-first lady Helen Taft, wife of the 27th president William Taft, who had developed an interest in the blossoming trees from her travels to Japan and was working to beautify the park area around today’s tidal basin, which was a swampland at the time.

“Mrs. Taft had seen the trees, not blooming but saw how they were planted and thought Washington, which was just under construction at that time, would be a great place for them, and boy was she right,” McClellan said.

Japan sent thousands of full-grown trees to Washington to beautify the park, but those trees would never be planted on the shores of the Potomac. After the Department of Agriculture inspected the trees, it was determined that the trees had to be destroyed.

“Of course, trees that have been in the ground have bugs, worms and all sorts of pests,” McClellan said. “So the Department of Agriculture inspected them, deemed them impossible, and forced them to be burned.”

The final decision to burn Japan’s gift was made by President Taft himself. But instead of causing a diplomatic crisis, Japan sent 3,000 more trees in 1912 that met the Department of Agriculture’s standards and were the start of the trees that still line the tidal basin today.

The trees, though planted successfully, were planted incorrectly.

“In 1912, when they planted the gift, the gift came with instructions; it was in Japanese, and nobody bothered to read it,” McClellan said. “Instead of planting the trees in groves and alleés as the instructions recommended, we instead planted them close together along the water’s edge of the tidal basin.”

The mistake meant that the growth of the trees was irreversibly stunted, McClellan said: “What that does is it creates this lovely cloudlike effect because the branches intersect but it means that they can't grow to their full height. ...We're all agog, so it's fine, but that is one of the reasons they tend to be a little smaller here.”

Since Mrs. Taft, first ladies have continued to play an instrumental role in maintaining the cherry blossoms.

“The first ladies have been very involved...especially Lady Bird Johnson was involved in them and the Japanese gave a gift of several thousand trees in her honor. Those are planted around the Washington Monument,” McClellan said.

For more about the trees, including McClellan’s cautions about the permanent damage that people cause to the trees by plucking their blossoms, check out this episode of Power Players.

Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio