The snowiest winter on record is slowly receding in Washington, D.C., giving way to thoughts of spring and the burst of beauty that arrives with the annual cherry blossoms.
Washington’s love affair with its cherry trees stems from 1912 when the city of Tokyo presented the U.S. capital with 3,000 Yoshino Cherry trees as a gift.
Those trees were planted along the Potomac River and the Tidal Basin near the Jefferson Memorial, which receives most of the vernal attention. But cherry trees dot the landscape throughout the city, including another 3,000 trees near the Washington Monument — another gift from the Japanese people.
Cherry blossoms are equated with the “evanescence of human life” by the Japanese, according to the National Park Service’s “History of the Cherry Trees” web page. Perhaps that’s because despite emanating from sturdy stock and for all their awe-inspiring beauty, cherry blossoms are very fragile and short-lived. But the Japanese revere their cherry trees. For 98 years, Washingtonians have too.
Anyone who doubts that their brief beauty won’t be the perfect remedy for cabin fever, snow-narrowed streets, slushy sidewalks and parking lots shrunk by Alps-sized ice mountains, doesn’t know Washingtonians very well — or the millions of visitors who flock to the capital every spring for the experience.
Anticipation is heightened by the uncertainty of the blossoms’ arrival. The bloom has begun as early as March 15 in 1990 and as late as April 18 in 1958. While the National Park Service will offer its prediction for when the blossoms will begin to bloom and peak in early March, those predictions are routinely revised. And once the blossoms arrive, their longevity becomes the next guess. Cherry blossom petals are fragile and susceptible to rain and wind. While they can grace the Washington landscape for as long as two weeks, often they fall much sooner, blanketing the ground with a layer of white much warmer than winter snows.
To celebrate the return of the petals, the National Cherry Blossom Festival has blossomed in its own right. The first festival was celebrated in 1935 and this year the non-profit organization will feature fireworks, a Lantern Lighting Ceremony, a Gala Dinner Cruise, a parade, street festival, 10-mile run and more from March 27 through April 11.
The National Park Service, which is responsible for the upkeep and care of the trees, also offers a variety petal-enjoying experiences. There are Interpretive Cherry Blossom Talks, Ranger-Guided Lantern Walks, Ranger Led Bike Tours, three-mile Cherry Chit-Chat Runs and activities for children.
Personally, I prefer to take in the blossoms at the Tidal Basin at dawn’s first light. The lighting at that hour of the morning makes it nearly impossible to take a bad petal picture. Also, because the world of morning people is small, the crowds are much thinner.
Washington Photo Safari offers several morning and afternoon photo classes where budding photographers can join a professional for tips on taking the best pictures. Prices run from $59 for general afternoon sessions, to $64 for the sunrise sessions (must gather at 6:15 a.m.) and $99 for all-digital camera sunrise classes. Despite the early hour, the sunrise sessions are very popular. The April 3 and 4 sessions are already sold out. Check the Safari Calendar for details.
If you do sign up, feel free to explore beyond what the professional tells you. When I took a dawn session several years ago, the instructor questioned my use of a telephoto lens to take a close up of a few petals with the Jefferson Memorial in the background. It turned out to be the best photo I took that morning, with the petals in sharp focus and the memorial ethereally floating in the background.
It’ll be a few weeks before you can take that photo, but you can picture it in your head right now. Go ahead. Take one more run down a nearby ski slope. Then, Think Blossoms.