Spending the first part of last week in Washington D.C., and the latter part in Berkeley, I was charmed to see that ornamental cherry trees were coming into bloom in both places on almost exactly the same schedule.
Last week—Tuesday, March 29 to be precise—was “peak bloom” for the famed cherries around the Tidal Basin in Washington, and a few days later when I walked the Berkeley campus during my lunch hour, our cherries were similarly laden with blossoms and bees.
Washington, of course, has more cherry tree nostalgia and tradition. The most prominent plantings around the Tidal Basin turn 100 next year, in 1912. They were a gift from Japan, the second such gift, actually. The first shipment was destroyed by the Department of Agriculture when the trees were found to be infected with insects and diseases.
The second time everyone got it right and cherries have been an iconic fixture of the Capitol environs ever since. The trees became so hallowed there was even a vehement protest and picket against construction of the Jefferson Monument because of fears that the expansive structure would eliminate too many of the cherry plantings.
These days there’s a popular cherry blossom festival in Washington centered on the Tidal Basin. Traffic is rearranged, entertainment provided, and thousands come out, even in inclement weather, to stroll the basin perimeter and other plantings. Every stage in the development of the cherry flowers is carefully chronicled and posted on-line so locals can time their visits to fit with “peak bloom.”
Last year, high tide coincided with the cherry blossoms so I saw many of the white-burdened trees with their gnarled roots bathed—or perhaps drowned—in Potomac water. This year, the water was well below the basin rim.
The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, set low in groves of old and new cherries next to the water, is a particularly spectacular place to admire the trees.
Our local scene is not so well endowed with ornamental cherries or cherry events. Although Berkeley historically had a large Japanese-American community, part of which survives today, our town has no such public cherry ceremonial and I’m not sure it could, given our considerably more scattered plantings.
But we do have a cherry history, too. Orchards of fruiting cherries were scattered around Berkeley in the 19th century, producing both commercially sold and privately picked, fruit. They were apparently successful enough. I’ve come across a number of old newspaper articles mentioning particular notable orchards.
They must have been very pretty in their time. All, of course, have long since succumbed to subdivision and development. I occasionally wonder if somewhere in Berkeley there might still be an old orchard cherry or two, a century or more old, hanging on in a backyard.
Cherry Street in the Elmwood, parallel to College Avenue, lies on the former ranch of John Kelsey, who did have cherry orchards among other fruit and ornamental plantings. I’ve heard a story—although I’ve never seen definitive documentation—that it was once lined with flowering Japanese cherries, and that they were cut down during World War II.
Today, there are a few older cherries standing on Cherry Street, along with younger specimens and some other flowering trees. But from their size and character, I doubt the older ones date back to the War.
The larger groupings of contemporary flowering cherries in Berkeley seem to be mainly on the UC campus. Some date back to the 1950s and 60s when Clark Kerr encouraged the planting of flowering trees.
One such venerable cherry survives by the Chavez Center dining terrace, south of Sather Gate. It’s probably about 50 years old, the same age as the building. It used to be part of a small grove, but all its companions have died and it now keeps company with a sapling redbud and a pink flowering peach.
Most other flowering cherries on campus are younger. There’s a fine group in a triangle of landscaping between California Hall and Doe Library, and other bright bosque of bloom northeast of Haas Pavilion, near the Brutus Hamilton Memorial. A third can be found north of Zellerbach Hall near the Korean Veterans Memorial.
Most of these larger plantings are due to the efforts of campus landscape architect Jim Horner. In recent years he’s been planting mainly the Yoshino variety on campus, a popular near-white variety that’s well represented among the Washington cherries as well.
In the 1930s a group of Japanese alumni of the University of California gave the campus materials for a Japanese-style garden that was created along Strawberry Creek north of the Valley Life Sciences Building.
The formal elements are long since vanished from this location, but I can’t help but think there must have been some flowering cherries in the mix. There’s one surviving thicket of flowering quince that puts on a late winter bloom in this area.
Off-campus in Berkeley I’m not sure if there are any large clusters of flowering cherries today, although of course I haven’t patrolled the whole city looking for them. There’s one big flowering cherry along Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, near the corner of Allston, in the old City Hall grounds.
This is an amusing tree because, as trees of the urban forest often do, it has sent a single major root off in search of water. You can see that root, nearly the thickness of the trunk, poking out horizontally just above ground level.
The tree stands on the edge of a grove that contains several memorial plantings. Was it a memorial itself, or simply decorative? I don’t know.
As I went around Berkeley on errands in the past week and kept a lookout for cherries, I was surprised to see that there are more in use as street trees than I thought, and quite a number of them seem recently planted, usually in ones and twos.
That means Berkeley may be in for something of a flowering cherry resurgence in coming years, although we still don’t have the large allees and banks of cherry plantings that make places like Washington D.C. so spectacular in early spring.
For more about the Washington Cherry Trees: