With the unprecedented number of snow storms to hit the Washington, DC area this winter, and the addition of the term “Polar Vortex” to our lexicon, it was starting to feel as though spring would never arrive. But eventually the snow melted and temperatures warmed up. By early April, the sun shone brightly and heavy coats were thankfully shed. Flower buds appeared on the trees, tentatively at first, then, confident that damaging frost was a thing of the past, the trees burst forth like trumpets heralding the the changing of the season.
In 1912, Japan gave the United States 3,020 cherry trees, and I can only imagine the complicated logistics this must have entailed in that pre-cargo plane era. In a ceremony to honor the special gift, U.S. First Lady Helen Taft and the wife of the Japanese ambassador planted the first two cherry trees along the banks of the Tidal Basin. The National Cherry Blossom Festival was born, and grew from a small three-day affair into the three-week extravaganza it is today.
Between the opening ceremony and closing parade, the latter a confluence of marching bands and colorful balloons akin to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Festival holds a range of blossom-themed events. I was eagerly anticipating the Blossom Kite Festival, which would have been a beautiful sight on the Washington Monument grounds, had it not been cancelled due to rainstorms. Other activities included free yoga on the National Mall, a 5K run, a Japanese sake tasting and a fireworks show. Of course, the most popular thing to do is simply to stroll the two-mile Tidal Basin promenade and gape at the pretty blooms. Mother Nature, she’s such a showoff!
Growing up in Virginia, I took Washington’s cherry blossoms for granted. They appeared every year without fail so there was little urgency to see them. The Festival showed up on the local news, and the crowds and chaos made hauling into the city seem like more trouble than it was worth.
It wasn’t until much later, when I moved back to Virginia after five years in New York City, that I finally went for the first time and got the appeal of the cherry blossoms. Maybe the ability to appreciate them just came with age. Or maybe it was seeing Washington with fresh eyes, like a tourist on holiday. Either way, the eruption of color after a drab winter was stunning. I remembered that feeling of awe when I visited the Tidal Basin last week, my first spring in DC since Shanghai. I was again enchanted by the fragile beauty, and wished the trees could stay like that forever (much like puppies and kittens).
But, as anyone of a certain age will tell you, beauty is fleeting and you better enjoy it while it lasts. The period of peak bloom, when 70 percent of the flowers are open, spans just a few days. The trees are closely monitored by the National Park Service, which issues a prediction for peak bloom about a month in advance. Historically, the blooms hit their peak around March 31, but, as we saw this year, a harsh winter can delay things a bit.
Tips for attending future Festivals:
For specific information on the calendar of events, visit the official National Cherry Blossom Festival website. Many of the events are free, but some require advance tickets.
Stands selling food and drinks and cherry blossom souvenirs are set up along the Tidal Basin, along with some Port-A-Potties. If those aren’t to your liking, there are free public restrooms and more extensive gift shops in the basement under the Jefferson Memorial.
The Smithsonian metro stop is recommended as the closest to the Tidal Basin. Just know that it is still a long walk and you will want to wear comfortable shoes. The Foggy Bottom metro is closer to the Lincoln Memorial, but it’s quite a distance.
If you don’t want to walk, bikes and paddle boats are available to rent.
Weekdays are best for visiting the Tidal Basin, as crowds will be much smaller. If you must go on the weekend, aim for early morning or late afternoon for a more peaceful experience.
Spring weather in Washington, DC, can be unpredictable, so dress in layers and pack some rain gear. This year, I needed sunscreen.
Dogs are allowed on the National Mall and around the Tidal Basin, as long as they are kept on a leash. They are NOT allowed on the Metro (service dogs excepted).
Would you like to experience spring in Washington?