Prosser Cherry blossoms showcased at National Cherry Blossom Fe - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

Prosser Cherry blossoms showcased at National Cherry Blossom Festival

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PROSSER, Wash. --   The National Mall in Washington DC is famous for gorgeous cherry blossoms each spring. The  National Cherry Blossom Festival runs through April 20.

Some special Japanese cherry blossoms , planted there decades ago  came from Prosser. The rare trees were a gift from Japan, but were extremely sick and sent to the WSU- Irrigated Agriculture Research and Center back in 1992.

It all started in the village of Neo, Japan. That's the home of the Usuzumi flowering cherry. A Japanese emperor planted the tree back in the 6th century. That makes the tree over 1400 years old. The tree stands over 50 feet tall and measures 30 feet in diameter. It survived major earthquakes, typhoons and even an ant invasion. The people of Neo wanted to share the tree's beauty and history with the world, so they presented the United States with cuttings from the ancient tree. Those cuttings would be propagated to create trees to plant with the other flowering cherry trees that line the National Mall in D.C.

Row of Usuzumi flowering cherry trees during Cherry Blossom Days in Washington D.C.

Those cuttings eventually landed at Washington State University's Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser. It was the 1990s and Bill was the Operations Manager for IR-2, a predecessor of NCPN-FT.
"When it came to us, it was in pretty bad shape," Bill says. "The budwood sticks were dry and shriveled. But somehow we got them to grow."

Tests showed that those growing trees also had at least two growing viruses. "We had to clean the viruses out of the trees before we could release them to be propagated," Bill says. That meant putting the trees through heat therapy. It took another three years for the trees to get a clean bill of health. Eventually the trees were planted along the Potomac River near the Roosevelt Memorial.

On a recent visit to Washington D.C., Bill took some time to visit the trees. "My kids like to call them 'Dad's trees,'" Bill says. "But it's the kind of research and science our people do at NCPN-FT everyday that should get the credit."

Jan Burgess checks fruit trees undergoing heat therapy

Dr. James Susaimuthu and Elmer Wilcowski working in the NCPN greenhouse

Shannon Santoy tests for viruses in the lab.

Those people include former employees and current staff, like Jan Burgess, our heat therapy specialist.
Or James Susaimuthu who analyzes plants undergoing virus indexing and Elmer Wilcowski who bud grafts the trees needed for indexing.
In the lab, there are people like Shannon Santoy who runs the molecular diagnostics.
The whole crew works together to make sure growers can get fruit trees without viruses and, occasionally, flowering cherry trees that grace the nation's capitol.

"We've cleaned viruses out of a lot of new fruit tree varieties planted in orchards all over the world," Bill says. "But the Usuzumi flowering cherry, that shows what we can do for flowering trees."

In the span of 20 years, the staff was able to remove two viruses from the trees and nourish them.  A manager of the clean plant network recently got to see all their efforts in person.

"It's a bit of satisfaction to see them there and to know this program contributed to a bit of beauty back there," says Bill Howell.