AVON — When the atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945, more than 100,000 people died and the bustling city was reduced to radioactive rubble. Somehow, about 170 trees survived the blast.
Since 2011, a group founded by an Iranian-American has been nurturing seeds from the survivor trees and is sending them around the world as “peace ambassadors of Hiroshima.” The second-generation survivors grow in about 20 countries — in places such as the National University of Singapore, the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, and the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation in Santa Barbara, Calif.
In a serendipitous series of events that began with a Google search for hardy street trees, the tiny town of Avon — with a population of about 4,400 and an area of 4.6 square miles – is joining the list of A-bomb tree hosts. And in an even more unlikely twist, Avon’s outgoing town administrator, Michael McCue, now has responsibility for finding US homes for a bundle of Hiroshima saplings that he helped bring to Massachusetts.
The plants come from a 250-year-old gingko biloba tree in the 17th-century Shukkeien Garden, located about 1,500 yards from the atomic blast.
McCue, who recently was picked to be Rochester’s town administrator, is an avid gardener who is known around Avon Town Hall for his summer give-away piles of eggplants and hot peppers, and is a firm believer in the value of municipalities planting trees. For the past few years, he has successfully talked National Grid into donating trees to the town for Arbor Day.
The town has planted dogwoods, flowering cherries, and several evergreens in various public spaces; McCue was looking for something different.
“I’d heard that gingkos are very hardy and used in streetscape a lot because they manage road salt and drought and cold; they’re actually called living fossils,” McCue said. “I was on Wikipedia when I came across a note that said they were so hardy that a couple survived the bombing in Hiroshima.”
A history buff, McCue was intrigued, and he kept searching until he came across Green Legacy Hiroshima’s Web page. He doubted he’d get an answer, but he sent an e-mail asking whether Avon could get a gingko.
“They typically donated to embassies and universities, so I wasn’t certain if they would send them to little Avon. But I struck up an e-mail correspondence with the founders and they were thrilled to send them,” McCue said. “I was astounded.”
Initially, the plan was for Avon to receive seeds, which meant that to get through US Customs they would have to go to an approved botanical garden or arboretum. So McCue contacted Stephen Schneider, operations director of the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain. Schneider grew up in Quincy and knew Avon well because he and his wife bought their first house across the line in Randolph and spent many Friday nights enjoying the music, beer, and popcorn at Avon’s Blanchard Tavern.
“When the project first fell on my desk, my immediate reaction was we are so busy, we can’t be involved,” Schneider said. “But the more I thought about it, I realized if the arboretum exists for anything, it’s for something like this.”
He liked the thought that the tough gingkos would have a “phenomenal story” to tell about adaptability and hope.
“At one time we were enemies of the Japanese, and now we are exchanging plant materials. We’re friends, we’re at peace,” he said. “If you can bring that sense of peace to the little town of Avon — a town that most people in Japan have never heard of — that really is a nice step in the right direction.”
Nassrine Azimi, who helped found Green Legacy Hiroshima, also was taken with the idea of sending survivor plants to a little town in Massachusetts with deep roots in American history.
Born in Iran, she went to a Jewish school in Tehran and then to school in Switzerland before her family emigrated to America after the Iranian Revolution. She was working for the United Nations in Hiroshima when she learned about the A-bombed trees.
“It is not clear why some trees survived,” she said. “Maybe there was a building or a land elevation that protected them from the direct impact of the blast. It’s a miracle they survived in the first place, but then there was a second miracle: Nurtured over the decades, they made it to the 21st century.
“The symbolism of planting saplings of trees that survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in one of America’s earliest [towns is] a powerful message of reconciliation, and resilience,” she said.
Azimi’s brother, Robert, lives in Wrentham and was planning to meet her in San Diego to visit their mother in April. A new plan evolved: Nassrine Azimi would take one-year-old saplings, instead of seeds, to San Diego, and her brother would deliver them to McCue.
The head gardener for Green Legacy Hiroshima carefully packed 12 seedlings in two bundles covered with bog moss — Customs won’t allow soil to cross borders — and Nassrine Azimi flew with them to California. A helpful flight crew took the plants into the crew’s cabin so they could be misted, she said.
For the next leg of the trip, Robert Azimi traveled with the foot-high plants on his lap. “It was precious cargo, so I wanted to make sure I did the right thing,” he said. “And then I got them very, very gently into the hands of Michael McCue.”
McCue gingerly potted the slender saplings and took them to Schneider at Arnold Arboretum.
“I was a little nervous,” he said. “I didn’t want them to survive a nuclear blast and not survive Mike McCue.”
The seedlings went directly to a high-humidity greenhouse and then into outdoor pots, where they are thriving and should be ready for planting in a year or two, according to Schneider.
He brought two of the seedlings to Avon on May 9 for a special ceremony honoring the Avon-Hiroshima connection. A representative of the Japanese consulate attended, as did a Tufts University professor of Japanese literature, local officials, and school children.
Nassrine Azimi sent a letter inviting Avon residents to visit the “feisty” mother gingko tree in Hiroshima and asking them to take care of the saplings as “they connect Hiroshima to the land of America’s forefathers – yet another miracle!”
Azimi also charged McCue with being the guardian of the plants and finding them appropriate homes.
McCue said he intends to send annual reports and photos of the trees back to Japan. He has promised one of the saplings to Tufts University and a few to the Arnold Arboretum. He plans to plant one at each of Avon’s two schools and a third at the town’s DeMarco Park.
The last location is fitting, he said, because it was the site of the former Swedish Lutheran Home, “a refuge for other war survivors, orphaned children from the first World War.”
McCue said he hopes the Avon public schools will develop a curriculum that involves Hiroshima and the trees, an idea endorsed by Avon Middle High School principal Elizabeth York. Although he’s leaving for Rochester, McCue said he has made arrangements with Avon officials to be sure the trees are planted, and he hopes to plant some in Rochester, too.
“These trees will long outlive any of us,” McCue said. “I want to make sure their message stays alive.”