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Photo: Helen Taft, a new cherry tree variety.

Photo: Close up of a flower from Helen Taft, a new cherry tree variety.
Helen Taft, a new flowering cherry tree, is being released by ARS to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Japanese gift of cherry blossoms to the country.

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New Cherry Tree Highlights 100th Anniversary of Japanese Gift

By Kim Kaplan
March 22, 2012

WASHINGTON, March 22, 2012--The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has released a new cherry tree variety named for former First Lady Helen Taft to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Japanese gift of cherry trees that now are a celebrated landmark of the nation's capital.

Helen Herron Taft and Viscountess Iwa Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador, planted the first two of the cherry trees at the Tidal Basin in a ceremony on March 27, 1912.

The "Helen Taft" variety is part of a series of flowering cherry tree varieties being developed by the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington and named in honor of first ladies. The new variety was created by crossing a Yoshino cherry (Prunus × yedoensis) with a Taiwan cherry tree (Prunus campanulata). The Yoshino parent, currently growing at the arboretum, is a clone of a tree originally planted by Chinda.

The arboretum is part of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), USDA's principal intramural scientific research agency.

Growing to as much as 35 feet tall and 35 feet wide over 30 years, "Helen Taft" has large, pale pink single flowers that turn darker in the center as the flowers mature. While most Yoshino flowering trees' blossoms are white or fade to white, the "Helen Taft" flowers retain their pink color.

"Helen Taft is an invaluable addition to the cadre of ornamental cherry trees," said U.S. National Arboretum Director Colien Hefferan. "Unfortunately, cherry trees have a narrow genetic base, especially in this country. That can make them vulnerable to attack by a single insect, disease or environmental stress."

Ornamental cherry trees have a beauty and range of sizes and habits that serve urban gardeners well. Superior urban trees help provide energy savings, cleaner air, better storm water management, and higher property values for home owners. Landscape plants, including ornamental trees, are a $14.3 billion-a-year industry in the United States.

"That's what makes the arboretum's research—expanding the genetic base by creating hybrids with species not often grown here—so important," said geneticist Margaret Pooler, who runs the cherry tree breeding program at the U.S. National Arboretum. "Stronger, well-adapted cherries also require less fertilizer and pesticides, making them even more functional in the landscape. The arboretum fulfills an important role with its long-term breeding program to improve ornamental cherry trees."

With 76 different varieties, the U.S. National Arboretum is home to the Washington area's most diverse array of ornamental cherry trees.

The U.S. National Arboretum has also helped preserve the genetic lineage of the surviving Yoshino cherry trees from the original 1912 gift by propagating 500 trees from them. The new trees were presented to the National Park Service in 1999.

"Helen Taft" is the second variety in the First Lady series. The initial, a 25-foot-tall, upright tree with dark pink, single, semi-pendulous flowers, was released in 2003 and is named "First Lady."

Historical materials documenting Japan's gift of cherry trees to the city of Washington, D.C., are available in the Special Collections of the National Agricultural Library.