Japanese group brings cherry trees to North Park
The Pittsburgh Sakura Project members plant 40 cherry trees in North Park near the boathouse. Setting a tree in place are, clockwise from left: John Zirckel, holding tree, of Richland; Rob Hellested, of West Deer; Jack Greaf, of Franklin Park; and Takeshi Mori, also of Franklin Park. They all work at Mitsubishi Electric Power Products in Cranberry.
Takumi Kato plays a Japanese flute, and Rio Shiobara plays Japanese drums at the end of the planting. Both are from Japan.
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When Yoko Motoyama came to the United States from Japan more than 30 years ago, she planted a cherry tree in her Fox Chapel garden. A few years later, she added two more. They were reminders of home.
Now visitors to North Park will be able to enjoy the same delicate harbingers of spring that have graced Mrs. Motoyama's yard for three decades.
As part of the Japanese Association of Greater Pittsburgh, Mrs. Motoyama has helped create the Pittsburgh Sakura Project, a tree-planting endeavor in North Park.
Sakura means cherry blossom in Japanese, and planting cherry trees has been something the Japanese have done for years as a symbol of friendship with the United States.
In 1912, Japan gave 3,000 trees to the United States to line the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. The gift was renewed in 1956 with nearly 4,000 trees.
On Saturday, with the help of more than 300 volunteers, 22 large Accolade cherry trees were planted, along with 10 Yashino cherries and eight Winterking hawthorns.
In Japan, the tree is celebrated for its blooms; cherry blossoms are the country's unofficial national flower.
"The Japanese people enjoy cherry blossom viewing in the spring," she said. She explained the tradition of picnicking under the fragile pink-and-white blossoms while singing, dancing and enjoying sake for the short two-week blooming time of the tree.
The volunteers put most of the trees in place, backfilled the holes and mulched them under the supervision of Denise Schreiber, greenhouse manager for the Allegheny County Parks. Ms. Schreiber was impressed with the dedication of all the workers but singled out one of the speakers, University of Pittsburgh Professor Asatoshi Maeshiro, for his fervor. "Let me tell you this man was out there digging, putting mulch on. He worked harder than some of the younger volunteers," she said with a laugh.
The Accolades were the biggest, at 800 pounds each and 12- to 14-feet high. Eventually, the trees will reach 20 to 25 feet. Eeach one was a little more than $700. Mrs. Motoyama was grateful of the Allegheny County Parks director Andrew Baechle for facilitating the project in the park. He cut through the red tape and provided lots of help, including having all the holes dug for the trees. Even though many of the trees were funded by donations, he was able to connect the organization with Treevitalize Pittsburgh, which provided additional trees through the county's allotment in the program.
One important aspect of the planting was the design of the groves. Ronald Block, Richard Mercer and his wife, Kary Arimoto-Mercer, are affiliated with Chatham University's graduate landscape architecture program. Mr. Block is a graduate and the Mercers will graduate soon.
They heard about the planting through the school's newsletter. The Japanese Association of Greater Pittsburgh was looking for design help.
The team was excited to create a plan for the group, but for Mrs. Arimoto-Mercer, who is of Japanese descent, there was something more personal about the project.
"I wanted to connect somehow with the Japanese community in Pittsburgh." After moving to Shadyside from California, she looked in the phone book to see if any other Arimotos were listed there. It's an unusual Japanese name, she said. There was one other listing with the same name, and for close to a decade she knew someone else in Pittsburgh shared her surname. They met for the first time Saturday and are investigating the possibility of being related.
All three designers had the same thing in mind, according to Mrs. Arimoto-Mercer.
"We really wanted to have a design that integrated the planting into the existing naturalistic landscape of the park," she said.
On planting day, she realized that goal was reached when a woman walked right through the grove of freshly planted cherry trees and asked her, "Where are the trees going to be planted?"
"The fact that she went through and didn't notice anything odd or unusual was really an affirmation of that," she said.
The trees came from Eisler Nurseries in Prospect and were carefully chosen for their look. The team didn't want "cookie cutter" trees, they wanted looser-looking trees and something that was from this area. "It was really important that we got trees that were grown locally because they're more acclimated to the soil," Mrs. Arimoto-Mercer said.
The trees were planted in three groves on Pearce Mill Road in North Park on a hillside near the Boathouse.
Everyone involved sees this as an annual event. There are plans for more trees, lectures about Japanese culture and environmental subjects, celebration of cherry blooms and even a possible Sakura 10k run.
Mrs. Arimoto-Mercer is pleased with the plantings, not only for their beauty but also for what the trees symbolize, and she wants visitors to realize the importance the trees hold.
"I really hope that they understand the significance of this cultural exchange. That this is a gift from people who come from Japan who really appreciate and want to share their culture because they have enjoyed the culture of the United States as well."
And months ago when looking over the planting area, she saw mature pine trees near the proposed site for the grove and knew this planting site was perfect because cherries and pines are a classic pairing in Japan.
"The pines are a symbol of life and longevity and the cherry tree is about the ephemeral nature of life," she said. "So there's a spiritual aspect to it that's better experienced than talked about. I'm hoping that in the future, that's how people will relate to the site."
First Published April 30, 2009 12:00 am