Tracing the tragic history of the couple behind the first D.C. cherry blossoms

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Much of the story has been told before: The dignitaries gathered by the Tidal Basin. First lady Helen Taft used a new spade to plant the first cherry tree. Among those present were Eliza Scidmore, who had helped bring the trees to Washington, and an Army grounds superintendent.

It was March 27, 1912, the event that gave birth to the National Cherry Blossom Festival. But almost a century later, little is ever said of the other two VIPs there that day -- Japanese Viscountess Iwa Chinda, who planted the second tree, and her husband, Japan's newly appointed ambassador to the United States, Sutemi Chinda.

They were an accomplished, dignified and tragic couple, having lost one son four years before in an explosion aboard a Japanese warship.

They would depart four years later with Washington the place of another heart-breaking calamity: the death of a second son, by his own hand.

The first planting -- marked Saturday by this year's festival kickoff at the National Building Museum -- was but a moment in history. There is little record of what transpired at the Tidal basin. A weathered plaque offers a bare-bones summary, between two gnarled trees that are said to be the originals. The newspapers carried only a few paragraphs, and no photographs appear to survive.

Yet the planting sparked a tradition that would outlast some of the most cataclysmic events of the 20th century. And it brought to Washington the lore of the fleeting blossoms and the ancient emblems of beauty, life and death....

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