Saturday Marks Start of Annual Cherry Blossom Festival
WASHINGTON — Peak bloom isn’t expected to occur until sometime late next week, but an influx of tourists is already evident in anticipation of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, which is kicking off this year on Saturday, March 18, and will run through April 16.
The first event of what First Lady Dr. Jill Biden has called “an enduring symbol of spring,” will be a “lantern walk” around the Tidal Basin — epicenter of all things Cherry Blossom — led by rangers with the National Park Service.
As described in the official guide to the festival, the annual event commemorates the 1912 gift of the more than 3,000 cherry trees in 12 varieties bestowed on Washington, D.C., by Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki.
On March 27, 1912, Ozaki, a man committed to advancing strong relations between Japan and the United States, was joined by First Lady Helen Herron Taft and other dignitaries on the north bank of the tidal basin in what is now West Potomac Park for the planting of the first two trees.
Others on hand included Dr. David Fairchild, of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Dr. Eliza Scidmore, the first woman board member of the National Geographic Society, and Viscountess Chinda, wife of the ambassador to Japan.
Today the site of the first plantings is memorialized by a simple bronze plaque at the Japanese Stone Lantern plaza.
The first actual “festival” planned to coincide, as closely as possible, to the average bloom date of the cherry trees was held in 1927.
Nearly a century later, more than 1.5 million annually visit the city to see the blooms firsthand, and untold millions more monitor the trees’ progress via a “bloom cam” sponsored by the festival and the National Park Service.
This year the unique view of the cherry trees on the Tidal Basin is coming from a camera atop the new Salamander Hotel in Washington, courtesy of EarthCam.
Why do the blossoms resonate with so many?
According to Biden, it’s because “they foreshadow brighter days ahead” while also connecting us to our past.
“Their cheery pink buds remind us to fill our lives with love and connection(s) strong enough to stretch across oceans and time,” she said in an official welcome published in the festival guide.
While the blossoms warm the hearts of visitors, they are the cause of more than a little bit of stress for event organizers.
That’s because exact bloom dates are almost impossible to predict in the long term, and accurate predictions aren’t possible until about 10 days before “peak bloom” — the day when about 70% of the cherry tree blossoms are open.
As of this past Tuesday, the National Park Services was estimating that peak bloom would likely arrive sometime between March 22 and 25, though it said thanks to a milder than usual winter, the peak would likely skew toward the early side of the prediction and perhaps even come a few days sooner.
“The blossoms are currently at Stage Four (Peduncle Elongation) on the way to Peak Bloom (Stage Six),” the Park Service said via Twitter.
Most of the events surrounding the festival are free and family friendly, and the city is encouraging visitors to set aside some time to experience Washington’s iconic landmarks, as well as its restaurants, shopping experiences and unique neighborhoods.
Given the crush of tourists that’s expected, the city is also encouraging visitors to use mass transit to get around.
WMATA Metro is expecting ridership to double during the three weeks of the festival and has added trains and buses to meet the increased demand.
The Tidal Basin is accessible from the Arlington Cemetery, Smithsonian, Federal Triangle and L’Enfant Plaza stations and Metrobus lines A9, W9, 30N, 30S, 32, 33, 34 and 36.
Metrorail will run more trains to increase weekend service, with fares ranging from $2 to $6.
There is free parking at all Metro station parking garages and lots.
The D.C. Circulator’s National Mall route also makes direct stops at the Jefferson and Martin Luther King Jr. memorials, as well as in front of the Holocaust Memorial Museum.
To help with delays, Metro said that starting March 20, any maintenance or track work will be conducted after 10 p.m. and overnight for four weeks.
Among the noteworthy events that will transpire in coming weeks are the “Petal Porches,” a competition starting March 20 in which those who register decorate their homes in the iconic pink flowers to win a prize for best-decorated block, best-decorated porch and most popular porch.
Then, of course, there’s the official opening ceremony co-presented with the Japan Foundation, which will occur on Saturday, March 25, at 5 p.m.
There will be performances by J-pop boy band Travis Japan, the musical stylings of Anna Sato and Toshiyuki Sasaki, jazz marimbist Mika Stoltzman, and classical duo PETÆL with Miray Ito and Benedict Kloeckner.
Finally, there will be a “Springtime Parade” on Saturday, April 15, that will close out the festival.
This year celebrities appearing at the parade will include grand marshals Minnie and Mickey Mouse from Walt Disney World, Silver Spring native and Abbott Elementary star Lisa Ann Walter as an honorary marshal, and performances by 90s contemporary music group C+C Music Factory and TV personality Carson Kressley.
Tickets are on sale for the parade starting at $25, but some portions of the parade from Constitution Avenue between 9th and 15th Streets are free to the public.