D.C. In Bloom: The Story of Our Nation’s Cherry Trees

Having lived in Washington, D.C. for decades, I’ve come to associate spring with the blossoming of the cherry trees around the Tidal Basin. And due to this long-standing tradition, I am a keen observer of the weather. Some years, I’ve worn a heavy jacket to see the flowers. Other times, I’ve put on shorts. Still other years, fickle winds have spelled the early demise of the delicate blooms.

To avoid the crowds, we always arrive early on the National Mall. And by early, I mean right after dawn. By 8:00 am, there are usually thousands of people already snapping pictures under the fluffy pink canopy. It is estimated that more than 1,500,000 visitors come to the National Mall each year to view the magnificent blossoms. Below is their story.

A Cherry Tree Obsession

Washington D.C.’s cherry trees originated as a gift of friendship from Japan to the American people in the early 1900’s. But long before that, they had caught the eye of American journalist Eliza Scidmore. In 1885, during a visit to Japan, she was awestruck by the flowering tree. She wrote:

Its short-lived glory makes it all the more keen and enjoying.

Eliza Scidmore/Photo: nps.gov

Meanwhile, back in D.C., the Army Corp of Engineers was engaged in reclaiming lands along the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. How the new landscape would be planted remained an open question. Thinking cherry trees would be a good fit, Scidmore petitioned the government. But federal officials denied her request due to fears the trees would need 24-hour policing to prevent people from stealing fruit. 

(Upon learning that the trees were strictly ornamental, officials saw no reason at all to plant them.)

That said, Scidmore wasn’t one to give up easily. Taking a different tack, she wrote to First Lady Helen Taft, who promptly offered to donate 200 trees to the Tidal Basin and asked Tokyo’s mayor to do the same. Japan did her one better. In January 1910, a gift of 2000 trees arrived in D.C. to be planted along the banks of the Potomac.

Unfortunately the trees were infested with insects and had to be subsequently destroyed.

A Blossoming Friendship

Two years later, the Japanese sent a second gift. This time it contained 3,020 cherry trees raised under the care of ‘Scientific Experts’. Composed of 12 ‘superior’ varieties, the shipment was loaded onto freight cars and sped to Washington, D.C.

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

In March 1912, First Lady Helen Taft and the wife of the Japanese ambassador planted a pair of these cherry trees on the northern bank of the Tidal Basin. Following the ceremony, the First Lady presented a gift of one dozen roses to Viscountess Chinda, thereby inaugurating the first unofficial Cherry Blossom Festival.

Incredibly, a couple of these 1912 trees still survive near the John Paul Jones Memorial (located at the intersection of 17th Street and Independence Avenue). A bronze plaque at the base of the trees commemorates the occasion. 

According to the National Park Service, some news articles indicate that a few of the original 1910 trees may also be hidden somewhere in the city. The United States Botanic Garden (USBG) believes they might be at Haines Point, where they have discovered a group of old Yoshino trees whose genetic makeup does not match the second gift of trees. Planted in clear rows about 50 feet apart, the cherry trees still bloom faithfully every spring. 

The Cherry Tree Rebellion

By 1938, people had fallen in love with D.C.’s cherry trees. At the same time, plans were underway for the construction of the Jefferson Memorial on the south side of the Basin. Many people, however, felt strongly that the memorial would interfere with the enjoyment of the trees. . 

When, in the spring, the National Park Service announced the impending removal of 600 trees to make way for the construction (including 328 cherries) it caused a riot. Chaining themselves to trees, a group of women staged a ‘Cherry Tree Rebellion’. President Franklin Roosevelt wasn’t impressed. He was quoted as saying

We will move the lady and the tree and transplant them to another place. 

But in the end, the Memorial was slightly downsized. And, according to the National Park Service, only 88 of D.C.’s cherry trees were destroyed while 83 were transplanted .

The National Cherry Blossom Festival

Decades later, the Washington, D.C. cherry blossoms are now classified as ‘Cultural Icons’; the same category as the national monuments. A crew of tree experts takes care of them, while adhering to a strict schedule of pruning in early spring. Currently, they are addressing soil compaction caused by the huge number of visitors.

Referred to as ‘wood chip therapy,’ their work involves creating a barrier between feet and soil to allow water and nutrients to reach the trees’ roots. In some areas, they are also installing fencing.

According to the National Park Service, peak bloom date is when 70 percent of the blossoms are in full bloom. On average, this usually occurs sometime in late March to mid April, depending on climate. Beginning in October, the National Park Service monitors the five stages of bloom starting with the appearance of the first green bud. The fifth and most vulnerable stage, known as ‘Puppy Blossoms’, is when the blooms are most susceptible to weather.

To determine the exact date of the Festival, however, the Park Service looks to an old Yoshino cherry tree, believed to be part of the original 1912 gift. Known as the Indicator Tree,  it typically blooms 7 to 10 days before the others. The tree is located just east of the Jefferson Memorial.


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About carole funger

I'm a landscape designer and Maryland Master Gardener living in the Washington, DC area. I blog about new trends in horticulture, inspiring gardens to visit and the latest tips and ideas for how to nurture your own beautiful garden. Every garden tells a story. What's yours?