A Gift of Friendship

We got up early on Wednesday to catch the Metro into Washington, D.C., to see the cherry blossoms. I’d wanted to go since we’ll be moving away from the area later this year, so I kept an eye on the ever-elusive peak bloom date. Last weekend’s warm, sunny weather over St. Patrick’s Day sped up my plan. So off we went, hoping to beat most of the crowd. And it seemed to have worked.

I’m not a fan of ornamental plants. Most of them look pretty but serve no other function, such as providing food for bees or birds. And these cherry trees do not produce fruit. But I am drawn to the idea that they were a gift made in friendship.

In 1910, Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo gave the city of Washington D.C. 3,000 cherry blossom trees as a symbol of the enduring friendship between the United States and Japan. Unfortunately, these trees arrived diseased and full of pests and were burned. Two years later, another shipment was sent from Tokyo, with a much better result, and a dedication ceremony was held on March 27, 1912. First Lady Helen Taft and Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador, planted the first two trees. From this gift, the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival was born.

The date of the Festival depends highly on the weather and fluctuates between late March and mid-April, with the average being April 4. Peak bloom is defined as the point where 70% of the trees are in bloom and can last as long as fourteen days. The earliest recorded peak bloom was March 15, 1990, while the latest was April 18, 1958. The National Park Service predicted March 23 for this year. However, the weather conditions were perfect for the blossoms to open earlier, and the date was moved forward to March 17, the second earliest on record. While this year did not take first place on the date, it was the fastest-arriving bloom on record because of the mild weather conditions.

Hearing this, we went. It couldn’t have gone better. The trees were beautiful, the weather warm and sunny, and few people were there. I learned a great deal about them, so here are some fun facts about this spring festival in Washington, D.C.

The most significant number (70%) of them are the Yoshino (Prunus x yedoensis) cherry trees, which are known for their abundant pale pink flowers. They average 20 to 40 feet in height, with a canopy ranging up to 30 feet. In contrast, wild cherry trees can grow to 80 feet in height.

The Yoshinos rarely produce fruit; however, they do provide nectar for bees, which in turn helps with pollination. Some insects are drawn to the trees, providing food for insectivorous birds. Several species of birds can be seen resting in them during migrations, and they provide shelter for nesting birds.

Did you know that other cities also hold Cherry Blossom Festivals? While not a large festival, each of the cherry trees in Amsterdam’s collection of 400 are individually named. The largest is held in Macon, Georgia, which boasts over 350,000 Yoshino trees.

Cherry trees have a short lifespan, averaging 16-20 years. However, the lifespan of some species is much longer, including the Black cherry, which can reach 250 years.

The blossoms and leaves are edible. However, breaking off a blossom can result in arrest, so try to avoid it. Instead, enjoy the various cakes, candies, cookies, and sweet tea on offer during the Festival. You can even try ice cream. Both Baskin-Robbins and Haagen-Dazs offer cherry blossom flavors.

Picnicking beneath the cherry trees is a Japanese tradition known as hanami, which means flower viewing, and is a time to welcome the renewal of springtime, known in Japan as sakura. Taking it one step further is the Japanese late-night picnic, known as yozakura, where paper lanterns are lit and hung from the branches.

One of Bath and Body Works’ top-selling fragrances combines cherry blossoms, crisp pears, mimosa, and sandalwood. I might have to check that out.

The blossoms of the Yoshino trees are typically white. However, cross-pollination with the Akebono tree has combined to create the delicate pale pink color you see on most trees today. Let’s hear it for the bees!

The Tidal Basin is the most popular place to view the trees. However, you can see them in many locations throughout the District, such as the National Mall, Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, and the Washington Monument. For smaller crowds, visit the National Arboretum, a secret spot that is far less touristy. Heads up, it’s not Metro-friendly nor near anything else.

Dave and I enjoyed wandering along the Basin, learning more about the beautiful trees around us. We followed it with a stroll around the monuments before making our way back to the Metro. Have you been to the Cherry Blossom Festival?



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