There is a much to say about Washington DC’s cherry trees. Swirling round these beautiful blossoms is a diplomatic legacy, plenty of annual hubbub, tons of art work, a spawn of tattoos, hundreds of thousands of of eager tourists and millions of dollars to be made. Every year, we watch their budding progress with bated breath, wondering when peak bloom will hit.
If you are new to the city or to cherry blossoms (Sakura in Japanese) and have yet to see a blossoming cherry tree, the sight is difficult to convey. They are a vision—a magical spectacle. Millions of pink and white petals fluttering upon beautifully wrought branches in the spring breeze. And when they fall, it looks like the most delicate snow.
A Brief History
The cherry tree gift was, in fact, years in the making. A few determined Americans—particularly writer and photographer Eliza Ruhama Scidmore—fell in love with the blossoming tree while visiting Japan and campaigned to have them imported to line our avenues. That was in the late 1800s. The idea didn’t come to fruition until around 1908, during the Taft Presidency, when FLOTUS Helen Herron Taft reached out to the Japanese about buying trees. As a symbol of friendship, the City of Tokyo gifted us just over 2,000 of them. That’s a whole heap of good will.
Unfortunately, the first shipment was infested with bugs and we had to burn them…
It could have been a diplomatic disaster if not for some good old-fashioned letter writing between our Secretary of State and the Japanese Ambassador. Both sides were distressed, yet remained determined and in good spirits over the ordeal. *Wipes brow*
Thus, more than 3,000 additional trees were generously sent over on the S.S. Awa Mar to Seattle, then transferred to insulated freight cars to Washington. These were healthy. In March of 1912, Helen Herron Taft and the Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese Ambassador, ceremoniously planted two of the trees at the Tidal Basin. And at the conclusion of the ceremony, Mrs. Taft gave Viscountess Chinda a bouquet of American Beauty roses. Every year’s festival since that has been an extension of that original ceremony. Later still, in the mid-60s, the Japanese government gave us yet another 3,800 cherry trees. These were planted around the Washington Monument.
Meanwhile, back in Japan, many of the parent trees to our now famous grove were wiped out during World War II and during environmental changes in the 1980s. This is where our friendship becomes less symbolic and a little more symbiotic. Over the last 100 years we have helped rebuild and maintain the heritage and genetic strain of Tokyo’s cherry blossom groves by providing cuttings from the Tidal Basin Yoshino trees. After all, friendships should be reciprocal.
We’ll wrap up this history lesson with the particularly intriguing and final addition to our cherry tree population: In 1999, fifty trees propagated from an ancient “Usuzumi” cherry tree, from the village Itasho Neo (Gifu Prefecture of Japan), were planted in West Potomac Park. This “Usuzumi” is the mother of cherry trees. As the story goes, it was planted by the 26th Emperor Keitai of Japan to celebrate his ascension to the throne—1,500 YEARS AGO. That’s stamina.
Predicting Bloom Time
The average peak date for DC’s cherry blossoms is April 4th, but it is virtually impossible to get an accurate read on the trees until about ten days prior to peak bloom. To give you a sense of the cherry tree’s unpredictability, here’s a look at the past 20 years of bloom times:
We’re looking at anywhere from mid-March to mid-April. And this year, our climate is a roller coaster of unseasonably warm and record breaking cold weather. What does that mean for the blossoms?
If the cold continues (it’s been a very cold February), those little buds could stay closed tight for a while longer and we’d be looking at an early April bloom. But if March is particularly warm, that could quickly reverse the effects of the cold and bring an earlier bloom, in mid- to late-March. And despite our average bloom time, which is based on nearly a century of data, peak bloom has hit earlier over the last few years. For now, all you can really do is join the horticulturalists in keeping an eye on the currently barren branches on the Blossom Cam, here.
What you’re looking for, according to NationalCherryBlossomFestival.org, appears in the following order:
- Green Color in Buds: Mid to late February – Early March
- Florets Visible: Early to Mid March, Av. 16-21 days to Peak Bloom
- Extension of Florets: Av. 12-17 days to Peak Bloom
- Peduncle Elongation: Av. 5-10 days to Peak Bloom (Frost Critical)
- Puffy White: Av. 4-6 days to Peak Bloom
There is, of course, plenty of pomp and circumstance surrounding the annual bloom. The National Cherry Blossom Festival is a celebration of spring and of our friendship with Japan. It is an absolute flurry of activity over nearly three weeks, starting on the first day of spring: March 20, 2015.
This year, more than ever, the programming for the festival will focus on keeping our world “green” and protecting our gardens, trees, parks and other green spaces. Among the planned, signature events are:
- Pink Tie Party fundraiser – Thursday, March 19 at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center
- Opening Ceremony – Saturday, March 21
- Blossom Kite Festival – Saturday, March 28
- Southwest Waterfront Fireworks Festival – Saturday, April 4
- National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade® – Saturday, April 11
- Sakura Matsuri – Japanese Street Festival – Saturday, April 11
And don’t forget your allergy suppressants!