Complete Guide To Viewing Washington DC’s Cherry Blossoms

Welcoming spring into the year are these beautiful gushes of pink cherry blossoms blooming at the heart of America – in Washington DC! And here’s my complete guide to viewing these pretty blooms, beginning with cherry blossom basics to its history with the nation’s capital to the National Cherry Blossom Festival to photography tips and more – Almost all you could ever need to explore the cherry trees of DC.

cherry blossom facts
Pic Courtesy: Arno Smit

What You Need To Know About Cherry Blossoms

Cherry blossoms or the “Sakura” in Japanese is the national flower of Japan. You can see that these pretty flower bushes adorn many paintings, coins and clothing native to Japan. Sakura blooms come in more than 200 varieties of which the palest and most popular blooms are the Yoshino variety. In Washington DC alone, there are over 3000 cherry trees!

If you’d like to know more about the main types of cherry trees, read this article I’ve penned down right here about the various cherry tree varieties.

Brief History of the Cherry Blossoms of Washington DC

In 1910, as a symbol of lasting friendship between United States of America and Japan, the then Mayor of Tokyo Yukio Ozaki gifted a set of 2000 Yoshino cherry trees to President William Howard Taft.

This first consignment was infested with insects and was burnt up completely. Undeterred, Japan sent another set of 3020 cherry trees of many varieties. The then First Lady Helen Herron Taft and the wife of the Japanese Ambassador Viscountess Chinda planted two samples of those trees marking the beginning of cherry tree culture in USA.

cherry blossoms dc
The Japanese Lantern at the Tidal Basin

The later set were distributed along the Tidal Basin and across some of Washington’s famous monuments. As you can see, the cherry blossoms have now extended beyond Washington DC downtown to the National Arboretum and the Arlington National Cemetery.

The inauguration of the National Cherry Blossom Festival takes place by lighting of a 300-year old Japanese stone lantern gifted by Japan to the city of Washington.

Photographer tip: The oldest cherry trees are around this lantern. They are the thickest and have weeping branches falling into the Tidal Basin waters. A great click for the camera!

cherry blossom festival
Lighting of the lantern that inaugurates the Cherry Blossom Festival

When Is The Peak Time For The Cherry Blossoms of Washington DC?

Cherry blossom peak time is a tricky time to track! This is because like all flowers, the cherry blossom is affected by numerous climatic and internal factors. And more than often, these blooms have a mind of their own.

The beautiful Yoshino cherry blossoms blush into life over a spell of a week, depending on the warm currents of the area. A lean winter might push for an early blossom, sometime in early March.

Usually, the cherry blossom peak time spreads between mid-March and early April, with the major bloom (one where 70% of the buds are open) occurring in a spell of 5 days. It’s in the midst of these 5 days that most of the blooms will remain fresh and open. You can view the flowering trees in full swing 2 days before and after the climax bloom.

cherry blossom locations
Pic Courtesy: Trevor Klatko (Flickr)

Remember that not all the trees in different locations bloom at the same time. The cherry trees at East and West Potomac Parks get less attention from tourists and stay in bloom for longer.

Refer to the indicator tree!

The blooming period can be most accurately tracked by the indicator tree. This tree has been popping out flowers 10 days before the exact peak bloom date for decades. National Park Services releases the schedule of blooms according to the horticultural studies on this tree every year. Based on this, you can plan your trip.

You can also view the blooms at the Tidal Basin and see for yourself whether they have attained their peak by using this Earth Cam – Cherry Blossom Earth Cam.

Also, other ways to gauge the peak bloom days are:

  • Instagram – Where you can trace photos and bloom locations and follow trending hashtags
  • Geocaches
  • Cherry blossom watch pages like https://cherryblossomwatch.com/
cherry blossom dc
Kwanzan Cherry Flower

Where are most of the Cherry Blossoms of Washington DC located?

The majority of blooms occur along the 1.8 mile pathway around the Tidal Basin. But there are plenty more of places where you can view the cherry blossoms without crowds. Refer to our photographer’s guide to know the complete list.

Photographer’s guide to Washington DC’s cherry blossoms – View here.

A quick point of caution – It is illegal to pick the blooms in Washington DC. So while they are in their pink showering glory, enjoy them near and far, with friends and family. But do not attempt to pluck them lest you want to a rub with the Washington DC police.

Missed The Cherry Blossom Bloom in Washington DC?

Weren’t able to see the cherry blossom peak bloom? Don’t worry because Washington DC has plenty of opportunities to see these cherries in their most colorful vigor!

Once the blooms deteriorate with shedding leaves, slivers of green leaves and branches pop out from the bud holes, ushering in a new season of life. There are cherry trees which flower in winter and fall also such as the Higan trees near the Washington monument and the tulip magnolias at the George Mason Memorial.

cherry blossoms dc
Pic Courtesy: Aaron Choi

If you miss the main Yoshino bloom, wait for the Kwanzan cherry trees to flower at the Potomac Park. These crispy dark pink flowers come out 15 days after the peak bloom date of the Yoshino trees. Keep a watch on the trees at National Arboretum. These varieties do not sync with the bloom timings of the Yoshinos at the Tidal Basin and can be a treat for late visitors. You can also find those forever blooming type cherry trees at many residential complexes in Georgetown and Bethesda.

National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington DC

A gathering of parades, marathons, cultural exhibits and spring-theme events, the National Cherry Blossom Festival celebrates the happy welcome of warmth in a spell of 3 weeks. This is a prime spring event in the US, attracting visitors from across the world by hundreds and thousands. It’s said that every year, the estimate number of people who descend into Washington DC to see the festival is 1.5 million! So it’s fair to say that shedding the blues of winter, this festival brings in a feeling of vitality in the lives of the locals, businesses and tourists.

cherry blossoms dc
A performer at the Cherry Blossom Parade Pic Courtesy: Chase McAlphine (Flickr)

Under the banner of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, several cherry blossom-themed activities occur in numerous places such as the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Library of Congress, at the Washington Monument and the Anacostia Park. This festival brings many districts and counties together in celebration of spring. Often, malls and other town centers host cherry-theme parties and gala events. Let’s take a look at some of the major events:

1. Cherry Blossom Parade

One must-see event that takes place during the National Cherry Blossom Festival is the Cherry Blossom parade. A ticketed event (with tickets going off in January), this is a family-friendly event which attracts crowds from everywhere.

Location: along Constitution Avenue NW, starting at the 7th Street NW and ending at 17th Street NW.

national cherry blossom festival
Pic Courtesy – Chase McAlpine (Flickr)
cherry blossom festival
Pic Courtesy: Ron Engle

2. Annual Cherry Blossom Kite festival

Another must-see event at the National Cherry Blossom Festival is their annual kite festival. This is a free event, loved by families, that takes place every year at the National Mall. Kite-flying competitions take place at the Washington Monument (registrations for which happen really really early!).

cherry blossom dc
Washington, D.C. Kite Festival at the National Mall © Garrett Hubbard 2013

3. Credit Union Cherry Blossom Ten-Mile Run and 5K Walk-Run

The Credit Union Cherry Blossom Ten-mile and 5k marathons are a major burst to the activity scene in Washington DC. The professional marathon calls for several road closures. So you might want to plan your visit to the nation’s capital on any day other than the day of the marathon as it may get more crowded than usual. Its also a major source of business for hotels which offer special rates for athletes flying in to attend the marathon.

The 2020 Credit Union Cherry Blossom Ten-mile and 5k marathon is taking place on April 5th at 7:30 am. Entry for the race is based on a lottery system which you can know more about here.

Sakura Matsuri – Japanese Street Festival

Due to the deep Japanese roots of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, most events that take place during that time reflect a strong east Asian theme. One such event is the Sakura Matsuri one-day festival. This ticketed event takes place in the Capitol Riverfront neighborhood and showcases vibrancy of Japanese martial arts, cuisines and traditions.

One of the largest celebrations of Japanese culture in the US, the Sakura Matsuri is the climax of many scintillating Japanese performances, arts, music and cuisine. The Sakura Matsuri is organized by the Japan-America Society of Washington DC and it attracts huge crowds from across the country with its world-class exhibits and talents.

sakura matsuri

With over 30 live performances of music, dance and martial art, the festival has an immensely wide reach and is extremely popular. Six core areas of the Sakura Matsuri are:

  1. The Ginza Marketplace – where you can buy traditional Japan-made items (such as tatami mats) and antiques
  2. Taste of Japan – for authentic and delicious sushi and Japanese cuisine
  3. Japanese Martial Arts – including sword art demonstrations, karate and ceremonial archery shows
  4. Japanese Performing Arts – basked in rich tradition and folk music
  5. Japan Now – showcasing the influence of anime, kawaii
  6. Japanese Arts and Culture exhibitions – Taiko drumming, calligraphy (or shodo), woodworking craft
sakura matsuri

With these six types of exhibits, the Sakura Matsuri wishes to make everyone touch, feel and taste Japanese culture.

Sakura Matsuri 2020

Date: Saturday, April 4, 2020

Time: 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM

Location: Pennsylvania Avenue between 3rd and 7th Street NW

What else to expect from the Sakura Matsuri Festival?

Books you can read to know more about the cherry blossoms of Washington DC and the festival:

  1. The Cherry Blossom Festival: Sakura Celebration by Ann McClellan
  2. Cherry Blossoms by James T. Ulak, Howard S. Kaplan, Julian Raby

Here are a couple of cherry blossom facts that might boggle you!

  •  In 1940, Washington DC authorities introduced the Cherry Blossom Pageant. It still continues to date, producing the Cherry Blossom Queen and Princesses.
  • The cherry blossoms flower across Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, Netherlands, Korea, China and even the United Kingdom. Most of them were gifts from Japan during the course of time, except a few trees grown natively in the mid-northern and southern parts of China.
  • Canada hosts a “Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival” at the British Columbian province every year when all its 50,000 Yoshino trees are in blushing colors across the state parks in between February and April.
cherry blossom dc
Pic Courtesy: Joseph Gruber (Flickr)
  • In India, Himalayan states such as Jammu and Kashmir, Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh and many northern districts of Darjeeling and a few peaks of the Western Ghats witness cherry blossom blooms when the weather gets warmer during the months of March and April.
  • Many Mughal paintings bear witness to warm relationships between India and Japan over the years. You can see drawings of emperors meditating among curtains of cherry trees in many Indian paintings.
  • Hanami is the Japanese tradition of gathering together to watch flowers. So this year in Washington DC, when the cherry blossoms burst to life, we will all be “hanaming.”

I hope this guide was helpful to you to understand the scale and significance of the cherry blossoms of Washington DC. These cherubic blooms have a large impact on the economics and mindsets of those in the capital. When you travel to Washington Dc to see the blooms this time, keep spring in your heart and treat the crowds with consideration to make everyone have a great experience at the festival.

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2 Responses

  1. April 3, 2017

    […] you need to know about the cherry blossoms of Washington DC – here! National Cherry Blossom Festival 2017 event schedule: […]

  2. October 2, 2017

    […] Similar to koyo viewing in autumn is the cherry blossom festival in spring! Read about it here. […]

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