The Washington DC cherry blossoms should be on the bucket list of every American. Not that visiting during peak cherry blossom season is exclusive to Americans, it certainly is not. But cherry bloom season in the nation’s capital is like seeing the Grand Canyon, Old Faithful or the Liberty Bell. They are symbolic of the nation.
However, planning ahead for a visit during the peak cherry blossom season can be tricky. It is so dependent on the weather. Nevertheless, you can typically anticipate that peak season will fall between the last week in March and the middle of April. This year’s peak bloom is expected from April 3rd to 6th (UPDATE: The trees hit peak on April 1, 2019). It’s not absolutely necessary that you be in DC on those exact dates but this is when the most spectacular showing is anticipated. I’ll get into more of the specifics further along in this post. But before that, a bit of history.
The History of Cherry Trees in Washington DC
It’s commonly known that the cherry trees along the tidal basin were a gift from the Japanese. But there is considerably more to the story than the Japanese gifted some trees to the United States.
The first cherry trees in DC were planted in 1908 but not as a gift from the Japanese but rather as an Arbor Day project for school children. Dr. David Fairchild, a plant explorer and U.S. Department of Agriculture official, initiated the project.
However, the concept of cherry trees along the Potomac River came from Mrs. Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, a world traveler and journalist, as early as 1885. After a trip to Japan, Scidmore proposed the planting of cherry trees along the river. Her request went unanswered. Yet she continued to petition for the trees.
During Dr. Fairchild’s 1908 Arbor Day lecture, an appeal was made to transform the “Speedway” (what is today, portions of Independence and Maine Aves., SW and East and West Basin Drives, SW, around the Tidal Basin) into a “Field of Cherries.” Eliza Scidmore was in attendance. It was at this time that the planting of cherry trees along the city’s avenues began to take hold. Soon after, Scidmore decided to raise the funds to purchase the trees and donate them to the city.
Scidmore penned first lady, Helen Herron Taft, who had lived in Japan and was well acquainted with the beauty of these flowering trees. The first lady welcomed the idea. Just one day later, Dr. Jokichi Takamine, a Japanese chemist, was in Washington with the Japanese consul, Mr. Midzuno. When the chemist learned of the plan, he asked whether Mrs. Taft would accept a donation of 2,000 trees for the project. Mr. Midzuno agreed and suggested that the trees be given in the name of the City of Tokyo.
Just days later the first lady requested Colonel Spencer Crosby, US Army, the Superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds to initiate the purchase of ninety cherry trees from a nursery in West Chester Pennsylvania. These trees were planted along the Potomac River.
Several months after that first meeting between the consul, the chemist, and the first lady, the Japanese Embassy informed the Department of State of the City of Tokyo’s intent to donate 2000 cherry trees to be planted along the Potomac River. By years end, the trees had arrived in Seattle, Washington.
In January of 1910, the trees had made their way to Washington DC. Upon inspection of the trees, it was discovered that they were infested with insects and were diseased. Sadly, the trees needed to be destroyed.
This could have been a diplomatic disaster but the news was met with goodwill. Tokyo’s Mayor Yukio Ozaki proposed a second donation and increased the number of trees to 3,020. In February of 1912, the 3,020 trees shipped from Japan. They arrived the following month in 12 varieties of cherry trees.
On March 27, 1912, Mrs. Taft and the wife of the Japanese Ambassador, Viscountess Chinda, planted two Yoshino cherry trees on the northern bank of the Tidal Basin, approximately 30 yards south of what is now Independence Avenue, SW. The two original trees still stand several hundred yards west of the John Paul Jones Memorial, located at the end of 17th Street, SW. A large bronze plaque commemorating the occasion marks the trees.
This quiet ceremony witnessed by only a few people has become what is today the National Cherry Blossom Festival. And the gift of these 3,020 trees was only the first of a number of gifts from the Japanese given through the years. There have been more trees in different varieties as well as Japanese statuary that can be found around the DC area. And the Cherry Blossom Festival has grown to a two-week event.
Where to See Cherry Blossoms in DC
The cherry blossoms can be seen all around the city as there have been multiple planting projects throughout the years. But, as you can probably imagine, you will find the highest concentration of trees around the tidal basin. Besides the area being awash with billowy pink blooms, this is a very walkable route. It takes you close to some of the city’s highlights including the Jefferson Memorial, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, as well as the Japanese Pagoda and Japanese Lantern. Additionally, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, are both within walking distance, as is the World War II Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial (near the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool).
When Is Cherry Blossom Season in DC?
Peak dates change from year to year and are highly dependent on the weather. This year’s predicted cherry blossom peak bloom as of this writing is April 3rd to 6th (UPDATE: The trees hit peak on April 1, 2019). For the most up to date cherry blossom forecast check Cherry Blossom Watch for the National Park Service’s prediction.
The timing of cherry blossom peak bloom is estimated by certain maturation milestones. There are 5 stages in the process that are critical to the timing.
- Stage 1 (Late February to early March) – When the buds become green in color.
- Stage 2 (early to mid- March) – Marked by the visibility of florets.
- Stage 3 (12 – 17 days before peak) – Denoted by the extension of florets.
- Stage 4, Peduncular Elongation period (5 – 10 day before peak) – This is a critical time in the maturation process. A hard frost or snow can all but wipe out the blossoms. This happened in 2017 when there was a heavy snow storm and a deep freeze in mid-March.
- Stage 5 (4 – 6 days prior to peak) – Puffy white blooms begin to appear.
Weather can have a significant effect on the timing and it is not an exact science. If there is a cold snap or a significant warm spell it can alter the timing. For this reason, it is important to check Cherry Blossom Watch regularly.
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If you are unable to make it to DC during that 3- or 4-day timeframe of cherry blossom peak bloom, don’t worry. These are the optimal days (when 70% of the trees are in bloom) but the range of dates begins 4 – 6 days before the peak and can continue for up to 2 weeks after. However, hard rains, frost and heavy winds can abruptly shorten the flowering season.
Avoid the Tourists During Cherry Blossom Season
Make no mistake, you will never avoid the tourists entirely during cherry blossom season. This is particularly true around the tidal basin. Cherry blossom season in DC is incredibly busy. Even mid-week tourist pack the area. Never the less, your best chance to enjoy the blossoms is mid-week. Go early in the day. In addition to this being a fantastic time to take photos, there are fewer crowds. You would think that with so much wide open space, throngs of people wouldn’t be much of an issue. However, you would be incorrect.
One way to avoid at least some of the horde is to avoid the areas where the buses drop off. These are some of the most congested areas. Tourist exit the buses en masse and head for the closest spot to grab their Insta-worthy images. They rarely venture far from their coach.
The Cherry Blossom Festival and Events
The 2019 National Cherry Blossom Festival runs from March 20th to April 14th with the official Opening Ceremony on March 23rd at the Warner Theatre from 5 PM to 6:30 PM.
You can expect outdoor live entertainment every Saturday and Sunday throughout the festival at the Tidal Basin Welcome Area & ANA Stage. On stage, you will find American, Japanese, and other cultural performing arts. The National Cherry Blossom Festival tent located in the Paddle Boat Parking Lot offers fun interactive entertainment, official merchandise, and more. Park rangers and volunteers will be on hand to answer questions about the Festival.
Kite Festival – Saturday, March 30th – 10 AM to 4:30 PM – This event takes place on the grounds of the Washington Monument and features competitions and demonstrations for pros and novices alike. Kids can make their own kite. Additionally, there is a Kite maker’s competition. Awards are given in a number of categories. For all the details, click here.
Petalpalooza at the Wharf – Saturday, April 6, 2019 – 12:00 PM – 9:30 PM – This fun event for people of all ages features live entertainment on multiple stages, engaging all-ages activities, a beer garden and fireworks (8:30 PM weather permitting). Full details here.
National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade – Saturday, April 13, 2019 – 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM – The parade route runs from Constitution Avenue between 7th and 17th St NW. Expect floats, giant colorful balloons, marching bands, live entertainment and more. This is a FREE event but Grand Stand seating is available for $20 pp. For tickets and parade details, click here.
Getting There: Take the train into Union Station. From there you can walk or hop on a bike share to the area around the Tidal Basin. You can pass the Capitol, Washington Monument, and the Smithsonian along the way.
Where to Eat: You can find food trucks around the general area but if you are looking for something more substantial head from the Tidal Basin to the South West Waterfront and The Wharf. You will find plenty of food and shopping options. The Waterfront is about a mile from the Tidal Basin. You can walk or grab a bike share.
Another great option is Union Market. You will need to grab a cab or car service. If you are ambitious you can try a bike share but it is about 3 miles from the Tidal Basin. Union Market is a former produce and meat market turned gourmet food hall. You can still find market-type stalls (even a knife sharpener) mixed among the gourmet fare.
We enjoy the food at Bidwell. They have a nice casual dining menu including soups, salads, pizzas, and yummy burgers. Additionally, they have their own seating and a bar. After your meal, wander around a bit and grab an ice cream or pastry for dessert.