Every year in early spring, the 1,678 Japanese Yoshino cherry blossom trees ringing Washington’s Tidal Basin and surrounding area near the Jefferson Memorial and FDR Memorial burst into bloom with their white and pink flowers. They’re joined by another 2,000 or so elsewhere around the National Mall.
Of the 3,770 cherry trees, the Yoshinos are the most famous, but there are actually several different varieties of cherry blossoms in and near the National Mall. Kwanzan cherry trees are mostly in East Potomac Park that come into bloom about a fortnight later. Weeping Japanese Cherry trees (or Higan Cherry) get about a one week headstart on the Yoshinos. And there are also Uussuzumi Cherry, Sargent Cherry, and Snow Goose varieties.1
The annual event provides the occasion for Washington DC’s two-week National Cherry Blossom Festival, which brings bus loads of tourists into town (and about $150 million in tourist dollars) and makes for a spectacular kickoff to Washington’s tourist season.2
It was a century ago this year that Japan gave Washington 3,200 cherry blossom trees. A few dozen of the trees still survive from that original planting, gnarled and knotted and mostly clustered down towards the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.3
The whole phenomenon really is quite beautiful, although with the peak blooming only lasting a few days and varying slightly each year depending on the local weather conditions, timing is everything. The color of the blossoms changes from pink, when young, to puffy white, when mature. So if you prefer pink blooms, come at the beginning. If you prefer white blooms, come towards the end. And if you can’t stand crowds, good luck! The actual blooming only lasts a matter of days, but other events are planned around the city as part of the festival, including a Cherry Blossom Parade and fireworks.
When Will Washington DC’s Cherry Blossoms Reach Peak Bloom in 2013?
The cherry blossoms have come and gone for 2013. For more information, check out my Cherry Blossom Watch 2013 page.
The Symbolism of the Cherry Blossoms
Yoshino cherry blossoms have long been heavy in symbolism in their native Japan. They have come to have their own symbolism here (and I don’t just mean the start of tourist season). I was particularly struck by this reflective and poignant New York Times editorial from April 2, 1939. Hitler’s armies had just annexed Czechoslovakia. The day before, General Franco’s forces had finally conquered Madrid, thus ending the Spanish Civil War. Before the week was out, Benito Mussolini’s army invaded Albania. And much of the world was still in the throes of the Great Depression.
In other world capitals there are trouble and apprehension, but in Washington the cherry trees around the Tidal Basin are in bloom, the President has gone to Warm Springs for a vacation and the national legislators, coming out of session, may look riverward over a city already beginning to grow with green. Spring comes to other capitals. Democracy does not hurry it by a day, nor could a dictatorship hold it back. But comes to Washington, as any observer just now may conclude, with a special grace. For there, at this time of year, in spite of depressions, unemployment and unbalanced budget, one catches sight of a tranquil and expectant America.
Along the paths at the water’s edge, under the blossoms, one may encounter, strolling and unworried, Americans from all the forty-eight States. Young love has not gone out of fashion. Two gentle-faced middle-aged ladies are talking about oppressed humanity, but three high school girls with bicycles have stopped a stranger and asked him to take their picture. Under every tree, on every lawn, this picture-taking process is going on. One hears every one of our national dialects–the clipped New England syllables, the soft Southern consonants, the broader Western speech. Every time of life is represented, from the two little girls sitting high up on a branch of a tree to the elderly lady who sighs and says that she’d be up there with them if she were younger. . . .
In Prague and Warsaw, in Berlin and Rome, in Paris and London Spring must come with a more somber touch. Here no troops parade in field equipment, no spies hang on innocent words, no iron hand shuts off the truth. We can breathe. The cherries are in blossom and the green wave from the South peacefully invades the North.4