An Insider’s Guide to the Cherry Blossom Festival in D.C.


The sweet, beautiful cherry blossom trees in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Christian Carollo/Say Hello to America)

By Christian Carollo

Spring is a time of rebirth and renewal: The snows of winter melt away, flowers bloom, and all the world seems new again. With the changing of the seasons comes new life, new purpose, new hope, and, for me, a new year of adventures. In the past few years, I’ve started making an annual pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., not only to celebrate spring’s arrival at its annual Cherry Blossom Festival but also to celebrate the start of my travels for the year.

The blooming of the cherry trees around the Tidal Basin has come to symbolize the natural beauty of our nation’s capital. The famous trees signal Washington’s rite of spring, with an explosion of life and color that surrounds the Tidal Basin in a sea of pale pink and white blossoms. Thousands of city residents, as well as visitors from across the nation and around the world, come to witness the spectacle, hoping that the trees will be at peak bloom.


Pretty in pink! (Photo: Christian Carollo/Say Hello to America)

To truly appreciate the beauty of the festival, it’s important to know a bit about its history. The first Yoshino cherry trees were planted on the northern bank of the Tidal Basin on March 27, 1912, as a gift of friendship from Japan. But the story of how the cherry trees found their current home is not that simple.

Related: The Absolute Best Value Travel Spots for Spring 2015

Upon returning to Washington from her first visit to Japan in 1885, Mrs. Eliza Scidmore, a well-known writer and photographer — and, notably, the first female board member of the National Geographic Society — approached the U.S. Army superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds with the proposal that cherry trees be planted along the Potomac waterfront. Her request fell on deaf ears. Over the next 24 years, she approached every new superintendent, but her request was never granted.


The Washington Monument surrounded by cherry blossoms. (Photo: Christian Carollo/Say Hello to America)

From 1906 to 1907, famed horticulturist David Fairchild imported 75 flowering cherry trees from the Yokohama Nursery Company in Japan and began to test their hardiness. Pleased with the success of the trees, the Fairchilds started to promote Japanese flowering cherry trees as the ideal type to plant along avenues in the Washington area. In closing his 1908 Arbor Day lecture, Fairchild expressed an appeal that areas around the Tidal Basin be transformed into a “Field of Cherries.” Eliza Scidmore was in attendance and took note.


Extending a (cherry blossom) branch. (Photo: Christian Carollo/Say Hello to America)

Two years later, in 1909, she sent a note outlining her plan to raise the money for the cherry trees to the new first lady, Helen Herron Taft. Mrs. Taft had lived in Japan and was therefore familiar with the beauty of the flowering cherry trees. Later that year, the Japanese Embassy informed the Department of State that the city of Tokyo intended to donate 2,000 cherry trees to the United States, and on Dec. 10, the trees arrived in Seattle.

The trees made their way to Washington in early 1910, but it was quickly discovered that they were infested with insects, and President Taft granted his consent to burn the trees. Upon learning the disappointing news, Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki and others suggested that they make a second donation and gave the United States 3,020 more.

Finally, in March 1912, Helen Herron Taft and the Viscountess Chinda, the Japanese ambassador’s wife, planted two Yoshino cherry trees along the Tidal Basin. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the first lady presented a bouquet of “American Beauty” roses to Viscountess Chinda. And Washington’s renowned National Cherry Blossom Festival grew from this simple act. Workers continued planting the Yoshino trees around the Tidal Basin from 1913 to 1920, providing the beautiful scene that thousands of people now come to behold every spring.


Cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin. Can’t you just smell the sweetness? (Photo: Christian Carollo/Say Hello to America)

Now, back to my more personal story. Much like the story of the origin of the cherry trees, preparations for my spring trip begin long before the short window known as “peak bloom.” As early as February, I compulsively check the five stages of bud development so that I can choose a day that falls as close to peak bloom as possible.

So how is peak bloom determined? It’s the day on which 70 percent of the blossoms of the Yoshino cherry trees surrounding the Tidal Basin are open. This date varies from year to year, largely depending on weather conditions. The “blooming period,” from the time when 20 percent of the blossoms are open until the petals fall, can last as long as 14 days but is greatly determined by frost, high temperatures, and wind or rain. The 2015 peak bloom prediction is April 11-14.

The day of my trip always starts off in pitch darkness. That’s because I like to arrive in Washington, D.C., just in time to sit on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and see the sun rise behind the Washington Monument. After enjoying my peaceful moment at the famous landmark, I start a leisurely, tourist-free stroll along the banks of the Potomac River as I make my way to where the real show begins: the Tidal Basin.

Related: 2015 Spring Weather Outlook and Where You Need to Go

As I step up to the Tidal Basin and see the brilliant colors of the pink blossoms dancing all around me for the first time that season, reflecting in the waters, with petals floating through the air, I pause to take it all in. It’s a scene that is the embodiment of spring.


The trees are definitely blooming. (Photo: Christian Carollo/Say Hello to America)

Pretty soon, the tourists start to appear en masse, and they interrupt my peaceful morning. Despite the invasion of a moment that seemed to be all my own, though, the flood of people invigorates me and serves as a reminder of the meaning of spring: life, energy, and excitement. After a few hours wandering the Tidal Basin area, enjoying the new life of buds and blooming flowers, my day is over.

Visiting Washington, D.C., for the cherry blossoms is an experience that I recommend everyone have at least once. But be warned: Once you behold the Tidal Basin in all its cherry blossom glory, you’ll want to make it your new spring ritual, too.


An artist paints the beautiful cherry blossoms. (Photo: Christian Carollo/Say Hello to America)

Let Yahoo Travel inspire you every day. Hang out with us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. Watch Yahoo Travel’s new original series “A Broad Abroad.”

WATCH: An Idiot-Proof Guide to an Epic British Pub Crawl