WASHINGTON DC: Cherry Blossoms

We only live about forty-five minutes from the capital of the United States, Washington D.C.. Or just “DC” as we locals refer to it, because “Washington” is the state on the other side of the country where all the apples come from. There is a lot to do in DC,  A LOT, but for this particular blog posting, I will focus only on the Cherry blossoms.

​I first became fascinated with the cherry blossoms when I was in the second grade. I won an art contest where my small little self drew a picture of the incredible trees, complete with gauzy pink flowers hanging over the edge of the Tidal Basin wall. The thirsty trees dipped their branches into the blue of the glassy tidal pool as if to drink the cool spring water. The art reportedly (Per my second grade teacher, Mrs. Crompton) hung somewhere important at the festival, I just can’t remember where 43 years later.

The recognition of this seven year old artistic genius, coupled with the fact that the National Cherry Blossom Festival takes place annually near my birthday, with peak bloom often on my birthday, solidified my obsession with them. I don’t often miss a trip down to walk amongst the blossoms.

​Below you will find some of the things that I have learned about the trees over the years.

HISTORY: On January 6, 1910 two-thousand trees arrived in Washington DC from the people of Tokyo Japan as a symbol of good will between the two nations. Unfortunately those trees were infected with nematodes, and sadly, they had to be destroyed. A crushing blow to the decades old endeavor by Mrs. Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, Dr. David Fairchild, and the First Lady of the United States, Helen Taft. A formidable trio who were determined to introduce the lovely flowering “Sakura” trees to the Nation’s Capital.

Completely undaunted by the set back, the Mayor of Tokyo, Yukio Ozaki, along with his city council, resolved to send the United States a replacement set of Cherry trees, and quickly dispatched (A very generous) 3020 trees to replace the first shipment. The replacement trees had been carefully selected from a very famous grove located on the Arakawa River in the Tokyo suburb of Adachi Ward.

This would not be the last time that the generosity of the Japanese people would be on display, as they continued to send us propagates of their beloved Sakura trees throughout the decades.

In the 1980’s botanists at the U.S. National Arboretum had the forethought to take small cuttings of the original trees, and then painstakingly grow new trees out of them. Because of this effort, they were able to replant 500 saplings to preserve the line. In the same spirit of goodwill by the Japanese people, we sent 120 propagates to Japan to secure the genetic lineage of the original trees.

Notice the different size trees? You will be able to tell the newer plantings from the old

Currently there are around 3800 cherry trees around the Tidal Basin and circling the perimeter of East Potomac Park. There are sixteen different varieties, with the Yoshino, and its distinct pink and white blossoms, being the most plentiful. The National Cherry Blossom Festival website has downloadable, informative flash cards; if you plan to visit with little ones, try making a game out of finding the different trees.

SIDE NOTE:The trees typically bloom in mid-March but can go as late as early April. The National Park Service sets the timeline and the entire DMV wait like nervous parents during “Bloom watch” each spring. Once they start blooming, you’ll have about two weeks to actually view them at their peak, so plan accordingly!

SECOND: It is crowded and I mean, crowded, as in, hard to move at times. An estimated 1.5 million visitors converge on the city during the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. The path around the two mile long Tidal Basin is narrow and the gnarled limbs of the trees hang low over the path. You will almost certainly be dodging selfie sticks, camera tripods, photo shoots of every possible nature, camera men from the local TV stations (I kid you not, this is big news in DC), strollers and packs of families. You will need the utmost patience.

THIRD: The National Park Service would prefer that you not walk or sit on the grass under the trees. The most damage we can do as humans, besides picking the branches (See below) is to compact the ground around the roots of the trees. In August of 2017, the NPS hired contractors to open up trenches around the trees so that water and fresh soil could be pumped in to aerate the roots. They are hoping that this drastic measure will get much needed water and nutrients to the roots, because currently the trees struggle against the cement-like compaction of the earth.

The three images above are from the Twitter account of The National Mall NPS (@NationalMallNPS) dated August 24, 2017. ​(Credit for the pictures is theirs alone.)
These photos show the work crews aerating the trees

However, because you will be dodging the horde described in tip #2 you will in all likelihood find yourself walking on the grass under the trees. It is not illegal to walk on the grass, unless it is roped off, but it is not healthy for the trees, so please try your best to stroll on the sidewalks and lounge in designated areas only.

FOURTH: These hearty, yet delicate trees cannot withstand climbing or mutilation of any sort. If their branches are broken off as souvenirs, they will likely never yield flowers or fruit again where the limb was shorn. The average lifespan of a tree is roughly sixty years, but with careful attention they can live much longer, so we should all treat them with care.

These idiots thought it would be ok to jam a large whiskey bottle
into one of the original 100 year old trees, for a photo-op.

As with anything on Federal property it is illegal to deface or damage the National Cherry Trees.

It is illegal to touch them, climb them, or pick the branches and wispy blossoms.

There are clearly marked signs around the Tidal Basin stating that you cannot pick the blossoms.

It is especially important not to allow your children to climb the trees. It is up to all of us to set the example, or the next generation may not have the trees to admire.

The cherry blossoms make an elegant frame for the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr memorial

FIFTH: ​There are public restrooms along the Tidal Basin route, a map of the closest ones can be found below.

LAST: Don’t want to deal with the mob at the Tidal Basin? There are two other spots for enjoying the blossoms. East Potomac Park/Haines Point, and on grounds of the Washington Monument.

There are a few of the original Cherry trees still alive.
They are pretty distinct, just look for the trees with thick, twisted trunks.


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