It's the Centennial Year for Washington D.C.'s Cherry Blossoms. Will the Blooms Cooperate?

Visitors enjoying the blooms around the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. NPS photo.

This year marks the centennial for Washington, D.C.'s famous cherry trees, and that adds a little extra drama to the "big question" facing organizers of the National Cherry Blossom Festival every year: Will the trees bloom on the same schedule as the Festival events? The suspense is over and the official "peak bloom" prediction for 2012 has now been released.

Whether the blooms will be "on time" isn't a frivolous question. The annual National Cherry Blossom Festival is a major event in the nation's capital, and a big tourist draw for the area. That means the man in the horticultural hot seat for the official prediction about the peak blooming period is Rob DeFeo, the National Park Service’s "veteran blossom prognosticator."

The weather, of course, is a big factor, and some people have wondered if the unusually mild winter might result in a much earlier peak than usual. Despite the variables offered by Mother Nature, DeFeo has an impressive track record for his predictions. He's monitored the cherry trees for the past two decades, and has only been wrong about the bloom dates on three occasions.

So... what's the expert's educated guess for 2012?

DeFeo, speaking at the unofficial kickoff for the National Cherry Blossom Festival last week, said he expects peak bloom to occur between March 24th and 31st. Peak bloom is defined as the day on which 70 percent of the blossoms are open. This year’s festival starts on March 20th and runs through April 27th, so the forecast is good news for the event organizers. DeFeo explained the bloom period starts a few days before the peak bloom date and can last up to ten days.

The warm weather has little bearing on the bloom dates, DeFeo said. “It really only matters as to what happens from now on. But," he quipped, “I can assure you, you're not going to see a late bloom.”

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This year’s festival marks the centennial of the first planting of Japanese cherry trees on the Tidal Basin on March 27, 1912. The first trees were a gift of friendship from Tokyo to Washington, but the effort had a bit of a rocky start.

In 1885 Mrs. Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore returned to Washington from a visit to Japan with a grand idea. She approached the U.S. Army Superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds with the proposal that cherry trees be planted one day along the reclaimed Potomac waterfront. Her request fell on deaf ears, but she was persistent.

Over the next twenty-four years, Mrs. Scidmore approached every new superintendent—without success. Two decades after she began her campaign, Mrs. Scidmore found a kindred spirit in David Fairchild, an official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 1906, Fairchild imported seventy-five flowering cherry trees and twenty-five single-flowered weeping types from the Yokohama Nursery Company in Japan. He planted the trees on his own property in Chevy Chase, Maryland, to test their hardiness for the local climate.

His results were promising, and in a talk on Arbor Day in 1908, Fairchild proposed turning the area around the Tidal Basin into a "Field of Cherries." Among those attending his talk was Eliza Scidmore, and the next year, the tireless advocate for beautifying the area with cherry trees found a key ally.

The First Lady Takes Up The Cause

Mrs. Scidmore wrote to the new first lady, Helen Herron Taft, who had lived in Japan and was familiar with the beauty of the flowering cherry trees. Mrs. Taft responded promptly that "I have taken the matter up and am promised the trees…" The following day two prominent Japanese officials were in Washington and suggested a donation of 2,000 trees in the name of the City of Tokyo.

When the first lady "takes up a matter," things usually start moving along. According to an NPS history of the cherry trees, "Five days after Mrs. Taft's request, the Superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, Colonel Spencer Cosby, U.S. Army, initiated the purchase of ninety Fugenzo Cherry Trees from Hoopes Brothers and Thomas Co., West Chester, PA. The trees were planted along the Potomac River from the site of the Lincoln Memorial southward toward East Potomac Park. Although those trees have since disappeared, a host of others have since taken their place.

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This 300-year-old Japanese Stone Lantern was presented to the City of Washington by Japan in 1954.

The initial donation of two thousand trees arrived in Washington, D.C. in January 1910, but the project quickly hit a major roadblock. To everyone's dismay, an inspection team from the Department of Agriculture discovered that the trees were infested with insects and nematodes, and were diseased. To protect American growers, the trees were destroyed.

The donors in Japan were not deterred, and in fact increased their offer. On March 26, 2012, 3,020 cherry trees arrived in Washington, D.C. The following day, Helen Herron Taft and the Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese Ambassador, planted two Yoshino cherry trees on the northern bank of the Tidal Basin.

The NPS history notes, "At the conclusion of the ceremony, the first lady presented a bouquet of 'American Beauty' roses to Viscountess Chinda. Washington's renowned National Cherry Blossom Festival grew from this simple ceremony, witnessed by just a few persons. These two original trees still stand several hundred yards west of the John Paul Jones Memorial, located at the terminus of 17th Street, SW. Situated near the bases of the trees is a large bronze plaque which commemorates the occasion."

Continuing the Legacy

Nearly 100 of the original trees are still alive at the Tidal Basin, and between 2002 and 2006, four hundred trees, propagated from the surviving trees from the 1912 donation, were planted to ensure that the genetic lineage of the original trees is continued. Today over 3,800 trees representing over a dozen varities can be found in the area, and Festival organizers announced this month that they will plant over 1,000 additional cherry trees in coming years.

The 2012 celebration of that event should be one to remember, said Bob Vogel, Superintendent at the National Mall and Memorial Parks. “Our rangers are planning some exciting programs and our tree crews have planted hundreds of new cherry trees around the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and on the Washington Monument grounds, which will make the spring’s arrival in Washington more beautiful than ever.”

As part of the Festival, NPS rangers will be offering a variety of special activities, including talks throughout the day about the history of the cherry trees, 3-hour bike tours, 2-hour guided "lantern walks" in the evening, a 3.5-mile "running tour" and more. If you plan to visit the area to view the blossoms, you'll several helpful maps, trail guides and other information at this link. The National Cherry Blossom Festival runs from March 20-April 27, 2012, and the Festival website includes details about the very full schedule of events.