Cherry Blossoms Peak on Washington, D.C.’s National Mall

Washington Monument framed by cherry blossoms.

After decades spent living in the Washington, D.C. area, I have come to associate spring with the annual peaking of the cherry blossoms on the National Mall. And because of this long-standing tradition, I am perhaps more aware of the weather at this time of year than others who don’t live in the area. Some years, I’ve donned a heavy jacket to see the flowers, many years I’ve worn shorts. Still other years, fickle spring winds have spelled the early demise of the delicate pink blossoms.

Last year’s cherry blossoms peaked on a spectacularly sunny weekend, much like this year’s, with one key difference. Normally, the trees begin to bud in March and reach their peak early to mid April. This year, the fluffy pink and white blossoms burst forth a good three weeks early in March, catching many off guard with their sudden appearance.

Cherry blossoms and old branches on Washington, DC's Tidal Basin.

My daughter and I got up early to drive down to the Mall. Considering the cherry blossoms’ many admirers, it can be challenging to snap pictures. We arrived around 8:30 am to discover tens of thousands of people already strolling under the fluffy pink canopy. It is estimated that more than 1,000,000 visitors descend on the National Mall each year to indulge in the magnificent blossoms.


A long-standing friendship

Washington, D.C.’s cherry trees originated as a gift of friendship from Japan to the American people. In 1909, the Japanese bestowed 2,000 trees to be planted along the banks of the Potomac. The trees were to be located in three parks around the city; around the Tidal Basin to the west, on Hains Point to the east and in the center of the National Mall on the grounds of the Washington Monument.

Japanese lantern at Washington, DC's Tidal Basin.

Japanese lantern commemorating the peaceful relations established between the United States and Japan at Yokohama in March 1854

Unfortunately, the Japanese gift took a bit longer to execute than originally planned. When the first shipment arrived in 1910, the trees were found to be infested with insects and all of them had to be destroyed. The Japanese subsequently made a second gift, this time of 3,020 trees that arrived to the United States on March 1912. Contained within this shipment were saplings of 12 varieties cultivated specifically for their superior stock. As soon as the trees arrived on the West Coast, they were loaded onto insulated freight cars and shipped to Washington, D.C.

Below is the U.S. National Park Service’s breakdown of the trees by species:

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The arrival of the cherry trees to Washington, D.C. was met with great fanfare. And, in a ceremony held on March 27, 1912, First Lady Helen Taft and the Japanese ambassador’s wife, Viscountess Chinda, planted the first two Yoshino cherry trees on the northern bank of the Tidal Basin. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the First Lady presented a gift of one dozen roses to Viscountess Chinda, thereby inaugurating the first unofficial Cherry Blossom Festival.

Cherry trees in full bloom in Washington, DC.

For the next decade, workmen continued to plant the Yoshino trees around the Tidal Basin. They installed 20 Gyo-i-kos on the White House grounds and the other eleven varieties and remaining Yoshino trees in East Potomac Park. The first true cherry blossom ‘festival’ was begun in 1927, with school children leading the way with tree plantings and other springtime outdoor activities.

Cherry tree branch in full bloom in Washington, DC.

By 1938, the cherry trees had become such an integral part of the city that a group of women chained themselves together to protest President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s plans to clear ground for the construction of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. A compromise was reached only when the park service agreed to plant more trees along the south side of the Tidal Basin, framing the monument. Today the memorial stands amidst the fluffy pink blooms.

Jefferson Memorial and cherry trees in full bloom.

In 1957, Mayor Ryozo Hiranuma of Yokohama, Japan made a gift of a 3,800 pound, 17th century Japanese pagoda. Its parts arrived in five shipping crates to Washington, D.C. with no instructions as to how to assemble it. The Library of Congress staff eventually determined how to reconstruct it accurately, including the exact placement of the five elements, sky, wind, fire, water and earth. The pagoda was subsequently installed among the original cherry trees donated in 1912.

Japanese Pagoda at Washington, DC's Tidal Basin.

Then, in 1965, the Japanese government made another gift of 3,800 Yoshino cherry trees to Lady Bird Johnson, who was known for her beautification work in the district. She accepted the flowering trees, which were American grown, in a reenactment of the original tree planting. The trees were planted on the grounds of the Washington Monument.

Washington Monument surrounded by cherry trees in full bloom.

In 1997, in coordination with the United States National Arboretum, cuttings were taken from the surviving 1912 Yoshino trees to ensure preservation of the trees’ unique cherry blossom lineage.

Old cherry tree in full bloom in Washington, DC.

Today, the 100-year-old trees have become fixtures on the Mall, every bit the monuments as the many historic buildings that surround them. Their gnarled trunks, bent crooked with age, stand as silent testimony to an historical friendship. The Cherry Blossom Festival has since grown to become the nation’s biggest celebration of springtime, with more than 1.5 million visitors descending on the city annually to take part in its many events.

All photos by Here By Design


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