Every spring, a stand of gnarled old cherry trees on the shore of Lake Merritt between Bellevue Avenue and El Embarcadero put on an astounding floral show. Their buds emerge in April as marble-sized magenta spheres that burst into pink ruffled clusters of flowers. At their fullest, the trees drape themselves in jaw-dropping blossoms.

Visitors often stop and admire the rosy-petaled boughs. Some might also wonder about the trees’ history.

Although the cherries stand only about 10 to 15 feet high, they’re quite old. And while there are only a dozen or so left along one short stretch of Grand Avenue, there used to be many more around the entire lake.

At one time, city leaders boldly envisioned a ring of cherries around the lake to rival Washington D.C.’s Tidal Basin.

A bare cherry tree with buds about to bloom next to the Lake Merritt Pergola in the background.
One of the last remaining stands of cherry trees around Lake Merritt is located near the Pergola and Colonnade. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

Many of Lake Merritt’s cherries were planted between 1956 and 1966, according to press clippings. They were part of a movement to beautify Oakland’s parks and establish goodwill between the city and Japan.

Before and just after World War II, plants were a big business in the Bay Area. The East Bay had lots of nurseries where foliage of all kinds were grown for sale to home gardeners. Some of the East Bay’s leading nurseries were operated by Japanese Americans, including Frank Ogawa, who was born in Lodi but made Oakland his home and would eventually become a member of the City Council. The 1950s and 1960s were also a time of booming trade between California and Asia, with the Port of Oakland leading the way.

In 1956, Oakland held its first annual Bunka Sai Festival, a nine-day celebration of Japanese culture and art organized by the Women’s Board of the Oakland Museum Association. The event concluded with a planting of flowering cherry trees in Lakeside Park. In Japan, cherry blossoms hold special symbolic significance. And watching cherry trees bloom for joy—an activity called hanami—is an old tradition.

A closeup of a cherry blossom with  closed buds on other branches.
A single cherry flower previews what’s to come in early April, 2023. At the fullest, the trees are covered in bright pink petals. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

The 1956 Bunka Sai Festival cherry planting was led by the Lake Merritt Beautification Project, a civic group intent on sprucing up city parks. The next year, even more cherries were established around the lake. The Northern California Nurseryman’s Association, a group of nursery owners led by Frank Ogawa, donated 25 weeping cherry trees for the cause.

According to a report in the Oakland Tribune that year, the idea was to “create in the Lake Merritt area a tourist attraction to rival or surpass the massed cherry trees in Washington D.C.,” with a long-term goal of planting a “necklace of 5,000 blooming specimens” along the water.

By 1958, there were already at least 500 cherry trees planted in various spots around the lake, as well as hundreds of ornamental apples, which produce similarly showy pink flowers. Various civic organizations, like the West Oakland Improvement Club, donated dozens of trees here and there to contribute to the beautification of Lakeside Park. In February of that year, Ogawa and a group that included Tom Kawakami and George Nakamura of the Eastbay Gardeners Association, and Clarice E. “Cookie” Cook, newspaper publisher Joseph Knowland’s third wife, put 50 cherry trees in the ground around the Oakland Public Library Lakeview Branch.

The Jolly Blue Birds, a girls youth scouting organization, planted an Akebono cherry on the east side of the lake in 1958. “Planting this tree makes Lakeside Park seem your own in a very special way,” Cook told them, according to a newspaper story from that day.

A group of girls dressed in scout uniforms stand with two adults around a small cherry tree they planted near Lake Merritt in Oakland.
Credit: Oakland Tribune via Newspapers.com

The campaign to ring Lake Merritt in cherry flowers picked up again in the 1960s. In 1966, the Sumitomo Bank, which had opened a branch in Oakland the year before in a sign of growing economic links between Oakland and Japan, donated 100 Kwanzan cherry trees to the city’s parks department, with plans of planting the double-pink blossomed saplings around the lake the next winter. Frank Ogawa helped accept the Kwanzan trees on behalf of the city. Ogawa also accepted a contribution from Soichi Kuwata, the Port of Oakland’s representative in Japan, to purchase and plant even more cherries.

By the early 1970s, well over a thousand cherry trees had been established around the lake. But they wouldn’t last.

Cherry trees can live a long time, but most varieties die after just a few decades. They can be difficult trees to cultivate, requiring well-draining soils and meticulous pruning. The city’s budget problems that began in the late 1970s and never let up probably also played a factor in the disappearance of flowering cherries from around the lake. The parks department simply had less money to care for the trees and replace them when they died.

A closeup of a tree stump in the grass.
The stump of a cherry tree at Lake Merritt. City leaders once dreamed of ringing the lake with thousands of flowering trees. Today, only a few remain. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

The last significant stand of cherries is located along Grand Avenue near the Pergola and Colonnade. They appear to be the Kwanzan variety like the Sumitomo Bank gave the city 57 years ago.

While civic boosters’ dreams of planting a necklace of cherries around the lake never really panned out, they did create something special for a short time, a vestige of which is still visible in one corner of the lake. When The Oaklandside visited earlier this week, only a couple of the trees had broken bud and started to send out tiny clusters of flowers. In another week or so they’ll create what former Oakland Park Commissioner Raymond Miller called in the 1950s an “unrivaled spot of urban beauty.”

Check them out when you get a chance.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.