A Spring Ritual: Cherry Blossoms in Washington, DC

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With the arrival of the first day of Spring, the excitement for my annual pilgrimage to Washington, DC for the blooming of the cherry blossoms can not be contained. Spring is a time of rebirth and renewal. The snows of winter melt away, flowers bloom, and all the world seems new again. With the changing of seasons comes new life, new purpose, new hope and, for me, a new year of adventures. In recent years, my journey to America’s capital has become a spring ritual that signifies the start of my travels for the year.

The blooming of the cherry trees around the Tidal Basin has come to symbolize the natural beauty of our nation’s capital city. The famous trees signal Washington’s rite of spring with an explosion of life and color that surrounds the Tidal Basin in a sea of pale pink and white blossoms. Thousands of city residents, visitors from across the nation, and around the world come to witness the spectacle, hoping that the trees will be at peak bloom for the Cherry Blossom Festival.

The first Yoshino cherry trees were planted on the northern bank of the Tidal Basin on March 27, 1912 as a gift of friendship from Japan, but the story of how the cherry trees received their current home is not that simple.

Upon returning to Washington from her first visit to Japan in 1885, Mrs. Eliza Scidmore approached the U.S. Army Superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds with the proposal that cherry trees be planted one day along the Potomac waterfront. Her request fell on deaf ears. Over the next twenty-four years, she approached every new superintendent, but her request was never met with success.

Cherry Blossom Trees in Washington, DC

From 1906-1907, Dr. David Fairchild imported seventy-five flowering cherry trees from the Yokohama Nursery Company in Japan and began to test their hardiness. Pleased with the success of the trees, the Fairchilds started to promote Japanese flowering cherry trees as the ideal type to plant along avenues in the Washington area. In closing his 1908 Arbor Day lecture, Dr. Fairchild expressed an appeal that areas around the Tidal Basin be transformed into a “Field of Cherries”. In attendance was Eliza Scidmore.

Cherry Blossoms in Washington, DC

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In 1909, Mrs. Scidmore sent a note outlining her plan to raise the money for the cherry trees to the new first lady, Helen Herron Taft. Mrs. Taft had lived in Japan and was familiar with the beauty of the flowering cherry trees. Later that year, the Japanese Embassy informed the Department of State that the City of Tokyo intended to donate two thousand cherry trees to the United States and on December 10th the trees arrived in Seattle.

The two thousand trees arrived in Washington in early 1910, but it was quickly discovered that the trees were infested with insects and President Taft finally granted his consent to burn the trees. Upon learning the disappointing news, Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki and others suggested a second donation be made. The number of trees donated now increased to 3,020.

Finally in March of 1912, Helen Herron Taft Tidal Basin Cherry Blossoms and the Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese Ambassador, planted two Yoshino cherry trees along the Tidal Basin. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the first lady presented a bouquet of “American Beauty” roses to Viscountess Chinda. Washington’s renowned National Cherry Blossom Festival grew from this simple act. Workmen continued planting the Yoshino trees around the Tidal Basin from 1913-1920, providing the beautiful scene that thousands of people now come to behold for themselves every spring.

Much like the long story of the origin of the cherry trees, preparations for my spring trip begin long before the short window known as Peak Bloom. As early as February, I compulsively check the five stages of bud development so that I can choose a day that falls as close to peak bloom as possible.

So how is peak bloom determined, you ask? Well, it’s defined as the day on which 70% of the blossoms of the Yoshino cherry trees surrounding the Tidal Basin are open. This date varies from year to year, largely depending on weather conditions. The Blooming Period, in which 20% of the blossoms are open until the petals fall, can last as long as fourteen days but is greatly determined by frost, high temperatures, and wind or rain. Five Stages of Cherry Blossom Bud Development

The day of my trip always starts off with an early morning rise. My goal is always to arrive in Washington, DC and be sitting on the Lincoln Memorial steps just in time to see the sun rise behind the Washington Monument. After enjoying my peaceful moment at the famous landmark, I usually start a leisurely, tourist-free stroll along the banks of the Potomac River as I make my way to where the real show begins — the Tidal Basin.

As you step up to the Tidal Basin for the first timeWashington Monument Cherry Blossoms and see the brilliant colors of the pink blossoms dancing all around you, reflecting in the waters, blossom petals effortlessly floating through the air…it’s a scene you will not soon forget. A scene that screams Spring.

Not long after I reach the Tidal Basin is when the tourists start to appear en masse and interrupt my peaceful morning. Despite the invasion of a moment that seemed to be all my own, the flood of people quickly invigorates me and serves as a reminder of the meaning of Spring…life, energy, excitement. After a few more hours is spent wandering the Tidal Basin area, enjoying the new life of blossoms and blooming flowers, my day is over.

Visiting Washington, DC for the cherry blossoms is an experience that I recommend everyone have at least once. But be warned, once you behold the Tidal Basin in all its cherry blossom glory, you’ll also want to make it your new spring ritual. I know I’ll be back again next year!

Have you ever experienced the Cherry Blossoms in Washington, DC?