In Washington D.C., there is only one thing that really marks the beginning of Spring: Japanese cherry blossoms. The ephemeral budding of these pink and white flowers, gifted as a symbol of friendship by The People of Japan in 1912, signifies the promise of warmer days ahead. And as the temperatures rise, these foreign flowers, now a part of D.C. culture, keep blooming.
During this time of the year, the cherry blossoms pop up everywhere in the city. But to witness a rich muster of more than three thousand Yoshino cherry blossom trees, a visit to the Tidal Basin is a must. Along the 2.1-mile trail ringing the basin, hundreds of people come together to admire the trees, each in their own way—from group picnics to workouts, and from professional photoshoots to capturing “Instagrammable moments” with friends.
Val Mallis, 30, decided to take the day off and visit the blossoms by herself. “Everybody always talks about the cherry blossoms during this season, so I didn’t want to have the fear of missing out this year,” she says. As a DMV-native, Mallis is familiar with the cherry blossoms and never felt the need to visit them every year. But when the pandemic hit in 2020 the National Mall & Memorial Parks discouraged people from visiting the tight-trailed Tidal Basin and an important part of D.C. culture was suddenly inaccessible. The choice to engage with, or ignore, a cultural phenomenon in the city was no longer Mallis’ to make.
Two years later, more than 70% percent of American adults are vaccinated against COVID-19, masking has become optional, and visits to the cherry blossoms are encouraged. So, Mallis chooses the cherry blossoms as a “nice excuse to come out of the house.” “It is always nice to see nature. It makes me feel better,” she says.
That feeling was shared by 23-year-old Ella Westerfield while enjoying an afternoon picnic at the Tidal Basin with a friend. Westerfield moved to D.C. from Lewiston, Maine right before the DMV went into lockdown. “It was a scary time for me because I did not know what was going on with the world. But I do remember coming here and looking at the cherry blossoms as a sign of hope,” she says. The small and delicate flower, symbolizing renewal and optimism by marking the end of winter with its fleeting bloom, showed Westerfield that the world was going to be okay. “Flowers have a way of showing us that the world just keeps ongoing. [They] remind us that things will always renew.”
But not everyone who visits the Tidal Basin recognizes the meaning behind the trees. Some don’t bother reading the informational signs placed across the trail, they are focused on capturing the perfect picture, rather than learning the history behind the friendship between Japan and the United States. National Mall and Memorial Parks spokesperson Mike Litterst, 55, says “That is absolutely okay.”
Litterst is well aware of the mix of different people that flock to the reservoir during its most popular season, and ensures that everyone is welcome. “As far as we are concerned, there is no right or wrong way to experience the cherry blossoms. We are just thrilled to provide this outdoor setting,” he says. The only thing that seems to be a challenge every year is getting people to admire the trees without touching them. Every now and then, visitors forget about the damage they can bring to the trees when they climb or touch them. This mostly happens with people who are taking pictures, but staff members of the park are happy to engage in teachable moments when this occurs. “We ask everybody who comes down to take care of the trees in three main ways: don’t pick the blossoms, don’t climb the trees, and when possible, stay on the trail and sidewalks,” Litterst says.
Three clear and easy rules that are still hard to follow sometimes. For some, the urge to get the perfect picture of these seasonal flowers that usually only last for ten days outweighs the harm we can cost them. But not for 65-year-old Anna Phen, who has no problem following the rules. To her, the cherry blossoms are special and need to be celebrated, especially on their 110th anniversary.
Phen is originally from Vietnam; she moved to Maryland more than 30 years ago, and visits the blossoms almost every year. This year, she and her friends are decked in festive and traditional Áo Dài, a long and colorful gown worn with trousers. The traditional clothing is seen as a symbol of Vietnamese beauty and pride. “In Vietnam, we wear this for special occasions. I am wearing it today because the cherry blossoms are special too,” she explains while taking a break from posing for pictures.
For the second time this week, the group of friends traveled more than an hour to get to the Tidal Basin. The changing weather and occasional thunderstorms interfered with their plans to take pictures earlier on in the week. “We came here, all dressed up in our traditional clothes and it was very cloudy. We did take some pictures, but not enough. Today the weather is much nicer, that is why we came back,” Phen says.
By now, the flowers are past their peak. The white and soft pink petals that decorated the trees throughout the city are now mostly scattered on the ground. But the city is not ready to say goodbye to cherry blossom season, not yet. Throughout April, the National Cherry Blossom Festival is still dedicated to celebrating the trees and the friendship between Japan and The United States. Parades, virtual runs, and interactive exhibitions are to be enjoyed till April 17th.
And for those who still need a picture for their Instagram feed or photography collection, there is still time left to visit the deep pink, pom-pom-like Kwamzan cherry blossoms in East Potomac Park. These less popular cherry blossoms will be in full bloom by the end of next week, ready to be the backdrop of a perfect moment captured on camera.