By Austa Somvichian-Clausen, Communications Intern

In anticipation of this year’s quickly approaching cherry blossom festival in our nation’s capital, Washington D.C., let’s take a look at a brief history of how these iconic trees made it here to the States and what we can expect from this year’s festival.

Looking back in time at the origins of cherry blossom festivals, the Japanese have been putting on celebrations for the symbolic blossoms for thousands of years, called hanami. In Japan, the cherry blossom, or sakura, symbolizes the cycle of life, death and rebirth. They have been used as symbols for everything from predicting successful harvests of rice to giving the World War II kamikaze pilots courage for their one-way missions.

Chiran high school girls are waving farewell with cherry blossom branches to a taking-off kamikaze pilot.
Chiran high school girls are waving farewell with cherry blossom branches to a taking-off kamikaze pilot. Credit: Hayakawa (早川) , via Wikimedia Commons.

It wasn’t until 1910, that 2,000 cherry trees were donated to Washington, D.C. in the name of the city of Tokyo and planted along the Potomac River. Unfortunately, those trees were found by arborists to be infested with bugs and nematodes and were ordered to be burned to prevent an infestation and protect American growers.

Trucks near Cherry blossom trees, Washington, D.C., 1940.
Trucks near Cherry blossom trees, Washington, D.C., 1940. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Fortunately, a second, larger donation of 12 varieties of 3,020 trees made its way to Washington in 1912, the most common variety being Somei-Yoshino. Besides the 1,800 Somei-Yoshino trees, the second most abundant is Kwan-zan and followed by Ichiyo. The Somei-Yoshino variety of cherry blossom tree was cultivated during the Edo Period in Tokyo and is by far the most numerous cherry tree in Japan. Somei Yoshino trees come with slightly pink — almost white — 5-petaled blossoms. The Kwan-zan is known for its stunning pink color and double flower. The Ichiyo has about 20 light pink petals per blossom. It is among the most common late flowering cherry varieties encountered in Japan’s parks and gardens.

Somei-Yoshino cherry blossoms.
Somei-Yoshino cherry blossoms. Credit: Takashi .M via Flickr.

This gift of trees from Japan was meant to honor the burgeoning relationship between the two nations and to symbolize the renewal of spring and the ephemeral nature of life. The first cherry blossom festival took place in 1935, but an interruption in the annual celebrations soon ensued in 1941, when four cherry trees were cut down shortly after the Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor. Officials started to refer to the trees as “Oriental” trees to prevent future incidents. Today, people throughout the country, and even those abroad, travel to Washington to catch a glimpse of the beautiful blossoms, which only last for about four to ten days.

Cherry blossoms surrounding the Tidal Basin.
Cherry blossoms surrounding the Tidal Basin.

This year’s peak bloom period is predicted to be earlier than the historical average of April 5, and we are told to expect the best days to see the blooming trees are on March 23-24. The reason for this early blooming period is because we are in a period of warmer ocean-atmosphere temperatures along the central and east-central Equatorial Pacific, a.k.a. El-Niño.

If you plan on joining in on the cherry blossom festivities this month, whether you’re just visiting or are a resident of the District — it is well-known that one of the best spots to see the cherry blossoms is along the Tidal Basin and at the Jefferson Memorial. It is worth noting, however, that there are plenty of lesser-known spots that may offer a less hectic viewing experience. The National Arboretum boasts 76 varieties of cherry trees and 446 acres to roam around on. Other spots include Meadowlark Botanic Garden in Northern Virginia, as well as Stanton Park and local spots like Foxhall Village.

Seeing the cherry blossoms in bloom is a special experience in and of itself, but it can mean even more now that we’re equipped with knowledge about the history and significance of these special trees.

Cherry blossoms at the National Arboretum.
Cherry blossoms at the National Arboretum. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.