Cherry blossoms a family affair for Johnson White House

As springtime approaches in Washington, one cannot help but notice the blooming of cherry blossom trees. As tourists flock to the Tidal Basin and the Washington Monument next week to see the trees at their peak, they will be marveling in part at the legacy of former first lady Lady Bird Johnson, who was instrumental in the planting of 3,800 trees in 1965. 

“She absolutely loved the cherry blossoms,” says Lynda Johnson Robb, the elder of former President Lyndon Baines Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson’s two daughters. “She would oftentimes take us to the Jefferson Memorial and take pictures of us there with the cherry blossoms.”  

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Johnson Robb noted that the Tidal Basin along the Jefferson Memorial was an ideal place to showcase the cherry blossoms because Johnson’s father and grandfather were both named Thomas Jefferson Taylor. 

Johnson’s love of nature and the environment continued after she became first lady. 

“Even though she had less freedom to do so as first lady, she would always love to get outside, go to the parks and look at all the daffodils and jonquils, and also work with children to plant gardens around their schools and in their communities,” said Johnson Robb.

The story behind why so many cherry blossoms now adorn Washington in the springtime is fascinating in itself. Johnson Robb recollects a story of their origin, told by Liz Carpenter, Johnson’s press secretary.  

Johnson and community leaders such as Walter Washington, Katie Louchheim, Katherine Graham, John Hechinger and others formed a committee to look at how to make Washington a more aesthetically beautiful place. At the time, the Japanese prime minister, Eisaku Satō, announced that cherry blossoms would be donated to the United States in honor of Johnson’s beautification efforts inside Washington. 

This created some concerns within the federal government at the time. The Department of Agriculture was opposed to importing trees from Japan due to concerns that an influx of invasive species would destroy native plants. The State Department, however, didn’t want to openly reject a gift from the Japanese, fearing that the prime minister would view it as an insult. Johnson consulted with the secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall; what ended up happening was that the Japanese purchased the offspring of original cherry blossoms in Japan, but they were grown locally and therefore could not be classified as invasive species.

The planting of cherry blossoms was part of a larger national beautification project by the first lady — a term that she admittedly was not fond of. According to Johnson Robb, some of the ideas for beautification came from Barbara Ward, a British economist who advocated for sustainable development and was also a good friend of President Johnson’s. 

In a 1996 interview with writer Harry Middleton for the LBJ Presidential Library, the former first lady spoke of the project. “Beautification — bad phrase, never did get over it — was very much talked about in the press and that was sort of my signature and everybody thought of me as doing almost exclusively that.” 

“We didn’t know how else to describe her efforts, but making Washington more beautiful gave people a lot of pride,” says Johnson Robb. “So much so that years later during springtime wherever I go, people tell me how much they love Mother’s flowers ... one would think she planted all those cherry blossoms along Hains Point and azaleas along the Capitol and Pennsylvania Avenue all by herself.” 

President Johnson was fully supportive of Lady Bird’s endeavors. In a message that he delivered to Congress in 1965 on the conservation and restoration of natural beauty, the president said:

“Beauty is not an easy thing to measure. It does not show up in the gross national product, in a weekly paycheck, or in profit and loss statements. But these things are not ends in themselves. They are a road to satisfaction and pleasure and the good life.  Beauty makes its own direct contribution to these final ends. Therefore it is one of the most important components of our true national income, not to be left out simply because statisticians cannot calculate its worth."

The president’s support of Johnson’s initiatives eventually led to the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 and the formation of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Program.

In a 1969 interview with Joe P. Frantz, Carpenter described the support for the first lady’s programs this way:

“The third wave of people who rallied to the cry of beautification and to Mrs. Johnson’s program were members of Congress. And when we started getting phone calls from Republicans and Democratic congressmen and senators who had heard back home from a garden club or town-planning group that wanted Mrs. Johnson, and the congressman or senator wanted to go along — Republican and Democrat — I knew we had hit pay dirt.”

Johnson was also a catalyst in the development of the nascent environmental movement. Author and environmentalist Bill McKibben feels that the first lady’s beautification program came at a crucial time.

“It was at the same moment that the modern environmental movement was really developing and it offered a way for people who weren’t quite ready to hear Rachel Carson to nonetheless begin to travel down that road.”

While admitting that she herself is not a horticulturalist, Johnson Robb is personally grateful for how much she was able to learn about the environment from her mother. One story in particular is very telling. 

“When I got my first job and received my first paycheck, Mother asked me what I was going to do with my money,” she said. “I realized that she thought I should use that money I earned in order to give back to the country, so I used the money to have trees planted along the courthouse in Johnson City, Texas, in memory of my grandparents. That was my first environmental project.”