Nothing signifies the arrival of spring in the District quite like the blooming of the cherry blossoms, an event that has spawned a three-week festival celebrating the occasion. More than 1.5 million visitors descend upon Washington, DC each year to admire the 3,000-plus trees. The festival, full of events that honor both the American and Japanese cultures, represents a close bond forged between the United States and Japan that began with Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki’s gift of the trees back in 1912.
The 2016 National Cherry Blossom Festival takes place from March 20 through April 17.
The "peak bloom" is the magical moment visitors want to be on hand for during the cherry blossom season. The peak bloom date is defined as the day when 70 percent of the trees surrounding the Tidal Basin have opened their buds, creating an unforgettable sea of pink and white. The National Park Service is responsible for measuring the growth of the buds of the trees, and each year. the service gives a peak bloom prediction. On average, the peak bloom is on April 4, but that date changes year to year. For instance, 2012’s peak bloom occurred on March 20 due to unseasonably warm weather and then on April 10 in 2014 due to a cold winter.
The blooming period, when 20 percent of the blossoms are open before the petals and leaves fall, can last up to 14 days, depending on weather conditions. "Forecasting peak bloom is almost impossible more than 10 days in advance," according to the National Park Service. Follow along on NPS's Bloom Schedule for the latest bloom predictions.
The National Cherry Blossom Festival isn't just a celebration of the blossoms—it's a three-week-long cultural festival held all over the city. Get things started on March 18 at the Pink Tie Party—a fundraiser featuring cocktails (with accompanying attire), cuisine, live music and dancing. The Opening Ceremony, a free event held on March 26 at the Warner Theatre, includes traditional and contemporary performances from American and Japanese artists. Other popular events include the Blossom Kite Festival (TBD), Southwest Waterfront Fireworks Festival (TBD) and the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade presented by Events DC (April 16), which is followed by the Sakura Matsuri Japanese Street Festival. For a full list of featured events, click here.
Washington, DC hotels get into the spirit of season with spring- and cherry blossom-themed room packages. When planning your stay this year, weigh the usual decisions—king-size bed or two queens, or proximity to the Tidal Basin—with exclusive bonuses, including bottles of Champagne, cherry-inspired goodie bags and cherry-blossomed themed cocktails. For a list of all the participating hotels, click here.
The first donation of 2,000 trees, received in 1910, was burnt to the ground on orders from President William Howard Taft. Insects and disease had infested the gift, but after hearing about the plight of the first batch, the Japanese mayor sent another 3,020 trees to DC two years later.
First Lady Helen Herron Taft planted the first tree in West Potomac Park. Many First Ladies, including Mamie Eisenhower, Lady Bird Johnson, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush, have officially commemorated the blossoms. On March 27, 2012, Michelle Obama took up the cause by planting a cherry tree to mark the centennial of the blossoms.
One of the earliest recorded peak blooms occurred on March 15, 1990, while the latest recorded peak bloom occurred on April 18, 1958.
The majority of the cherry blossom trees around the Tidal Basin are of the Yoshino variety. But another species, the Kwanzan, usually blooms two weeks after the Yoshino trees, giving visitors a second chance to catch the blossoms.