Friday 23 April 2021

One Flash Fiction Piece by Art Ó Súilleabháin


The Cherry Blossoms in Washington DC 


It is peak daffodil time in Ireland. They are blooming all along our roadsides, in gardens and in abandoned fields. What do they mean beyond the yellow displays of Spring promise?  They are candy for the eyes but we don’t trumpet their blooming, barring the great institution of Daffodil Day. In Ireland the daffodils just arrive, emerging from the green to flood the margins with yellow. They are foreign invaders that come by some stealth. No fanfare or commemoration accompanies their history here. 


In Washington DC it is different. They think of the cherry blossom as the heralds of Spring. They build up the expectations for them along the banks of the Potomac river. It has a history, a story to be acclaimed. It is observed as a time of expectation, a time of meeting, a time for walkers to get out and enjoy the promise of spring, a time to enjoy the blaze of colour streaming along the river. People emerge from the winter darkness into the pink of spring. They just walk underneath the colour of the blooms revelling in the faint scent, basking in the glow of promise, stopping for a morning latte at one of the many coffee docks, while nonchalantly looking around to see who else might be about. 


For weeks those watching Good Morning Washington over breakfast or listening to WTOP-FM while negotiating the ‘beltways’ into the city are treated to updates on the phases of the blossoms. There are six phases of bloom with phase six being the ultimate crowning before the petals begin to fall and litter the previously immaculate sidewalks. 


As the phases grow so too do the masses of people thronging the sidewalks at Georgetown Waterfront, Ohio Drive or along the Arlington Bridge. Couples decide which phase might be best for them to enjoy the blossoms. Crowds of all nationalities pose for photographs under the colourful trees. The Japanese seem to outnumber everyone else. But that is as it should be.


On February 14th 1912 over 3000 cherry blossom trees were shipped from Yokohama in Japan to Washington, a present from the Yukio Ozaki the Mayor of Tokyo. The trees were planted all along the Potomac River near the Lincoln Memorial and Constitution Avenue. They thrived and after some initial setbacks the ‘Cherry Blossom Festival’ was inaugurated. It stretches now for weeks. I was fortunate to be in Washington in the spring of 2018 with my friend Eamonn. We walked along the Potomac, bought souvenirs and generally acted the tourist type. We were inevitably asked to take photographs of groups of fashionably dressed Japanese people around the Stone Lantern. 


This lantern donated to the people of Washington by Japanese in 1954, as a mark of peace after the 2nd World War. It is a block of eight feet high granite and weighs about two tons. The National Cherry Blossom Festival is officially opened each year by the lighting of the lantern. You can buy all sorts of souvenirs from pencils to pedestals, badges to bookmarks and the predictable t-shirts – the whole thing has become an industry – not to mention the tourists who throng into Washington to walk among the blooms and take in visits to the White House and the Smithsonian while in the capital. Of course there is the unescapable ‘Cherry Blossom Queen’, selected from ‘Cherry Blossom Princess’ from every state in the union.


But the story is most important. Cuttings from descendants of the original cherry trees were propagated and returned to Japan in 1952 to replenish a dying cherry grove in the Adachi region there. The cycle of peace, giving and preservation continued in 1965 when the Japanese Government made another gift of almost 4000 Yoshino cherry trees to Washington. The First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson (wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson) re-enacted the first planting in 1912. 


In 1982 more cuttings from the original stock were sent to Japan to renew another threatened grove. The United States National Arboretum now take cuttings from the documented, surviving 1912 Yoshino cherry trees to ensure preservation of the originals. These trees are be used in subsequent replacement plantings to preserve the genetic heritage of the grove and indeed some are sent back to Japan, thus continuing the cultural exchange of beauty and peace.


The pink and white cherry trees will blossom in gardens all over Ireland, singular displays of colour cheering the planter and the odd passer-by. They will tower over the yellow spirit of the daffodils, but without the hoopla that the cherry blossoms on the banks of the Potomac still generate. In Washington, the traditions of cultural exchange, international friendship, and taking time to enjoy the blooming of the cherry trees will go on despite the constraints of Covid 19 – and according to Good Morning Washington the cherry blossoms' much-anticipated ‘Peak bloom’ is set to happen between April 9th and April 15th. Pity I cannot be there.

Art Ó Súilleabháin was born in Corr na Móna, Co. Galway and spent some years in Boston USA. He worked in Dublin, Castlebar and Washington DC (Fulbright scholar) before returning to Corr na Móna. He won North West Words Poetry and he has been featured in Poetry Ireland, Boyne Berries, Skylight 47, Salt on the Coals (Winchester) and with Cinnamon Press (UK). He has published books for children and has read on Sunday Miscellany (National Radio in Ireland) in English and Irish. His first collection of poetry for adults (Mayflies in the Heather) has just been published by Revival Press in April 2021. ( see:  or revival-press  )

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