Traverse City Record-Eagle

Archive: Saturday

March 9, 2013

How to replace D.C.'s famed cherry trees?

WASHINGTON, D.C. — More than half a million visitors annually embark on a spring pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., to see the cherry trees in bloom.

Besides sheer profusion, those cherries have history. They were a gift from Japan as thanks for our help during the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. Howard Taft was secretary of war then; he was president when the first cherry tree was lowered into the ground in 1912 by his wife, Helen.

AGING TREES

Alas, no tree lives forever, and those original cherries have been succumbing to age despite efforts to coddle them along. It wouldn't seem right to stick just any old cherry trees into the ground to replace those that fail. After all, these particular trees symbolize a bond with Japan and have stood witness to history. Besides, there are a number of different cherry species and varieties — not even all pink-flowered, or double-flowered or weeping cherries are the same.

The 3,000 or so trees sent as a gift in 1912 were mostly Yoshino cherry trees. Yoshinos are hybrids of unknown parentage, and come in a number of varieties, among them those with pink flowers and upright habit (Afterglow), white flowers and weeping habit (Pendula), and diminutive size and weeping habit (Shidare Yoshino).

The earliest replacements for ailing trees around the Tidal Basin were made in the 1930s and were of a Yoshino variety called Akebono ("Daybreak"), which has double, pink flowers.

THE CLONING SOLUTION

In recent years, efforts were made to replace ailing trees with genetic replicas of the originals. Such trees would be exactly the same as the originals, only younger. Genetic replicas are created by cloning, which involves taking cuttings from the original trees and rooting them to make whole new ones.

Rooting cuttings from an 80-year-old tree is not easy, because cuttings generally root most readily from so-called juvenile wood. Where do you find juvenile wood on an 80-year-old plant? In sprouts near the base, the original part of the plant.

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