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D.C.’s Cherry Blossoms Illustrate The Beauty And Fragility Of Spring

cherry blossoms in Washington D.C. outside the Capitol
Image CreditChris Jacobs

D.C.’s cherry blossoms serve as both a harbinger of spring and a reminder that spring, as with all seasons of life, does not last forever.

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Ephemeral. Ethereal. A moment in time.

Washington’s cherry blossoms have a century-old history and different meanings that come with that history. But at their core, they serve as both a welcome harbinger of spring and a reminder that spring, as with all seasons of life, does not last forever.

Symbol of Peace

Strange as it sounds, the cherry blossom trees in the nation’s capital have their roots in a war over a century old, that took place half a world away, and in which the United States did not participate. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt served as an intermediary for negotiations that led to the Treaty of Portsmouth, which ended the Russo-Japanese War.

The efforts didn’t just make Roosevelt the first president to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his part in creating the opening for an end to the conflict. In part due to the diplomatic ties fostered during that period, Washington received a donation of cherry trees — officially a gift from Japan and its capital of Tokyo to the United States and its capital.

And while the first batch of trees, donated in 1910, had to be destroyed due to an infestation of insects, the second donation, made in 1912, has been preserved, with plantings made from the original trees’ cuttings to protect their genetic lineage.

Springtime Tourist Trap

As Washington grew in standing as a global capital in the first half of the 20th century, the cherry blossoms likewise rose in stature and repute. The Jefferson Memorial, dedicated in 1943, provided a focal point for the springtime blossoms. Subsequent memorials to Franklin Roosevelt (dedicated in 1997) and Martin Luther King Jr. (dedicated in 2011) were added to the list of attractions near the famous cherry trees.

While the festival only lasted three days during its initial establishment in 1935, Washington now spends four weeks celebrating the cherry blossoms. The festival draws large crowds nationally and internationally every year, turning the cherry blossoms into big business for area merchants.

And even though hordes of visitors clog the streets in downtown Washington near the National Mall for a few days (including this past weekend) each spring, longtime Washingtonians know there are other places around the capital city that also provide beautiful views, with far fewer crowds — the U.S. Capitol being but one example.

Fragrant but Fleeting

While Washington may spend nearly a month celebrating its cherry trees, the blossoms themselves have a far shorter duration. A cottage industry of meteorologists and horticulturalists try to determine the few short days every year that constitute “peak bloom” — when the trees have budded and flowered, but before the leaves grow out and the blossoms fall to the ground.

Many factors of air, sunlight, and soil determine peak bloom — and just as many can sweep the blossoms into the Tidal Basin. And particularly at this time of year, the weather can prove a fickle mistress.

While Washington enjoyed a comparatively mild winter this year, temperatures on the fringe of spring can soar to summertime heights or provide the last gasp of Jack Frost’s frigid grasp. Just last year, most of the people disembarking from the Metro to visit the blossoms’ peak bloom wore parkas and wool hats, more closely resembling Shackleton’s Arctic expedition than a crowd gathering to celebrate a rite of spring.

Enjoy It While You Can

As society has moved away from its agrarian roots, we tend to forget about what we cannot control — like the weather — only to become slightly irate when reality intervenes. Witness those who plan wedding pictures, or family photos, for cherry blossom season — as some do around Washington — only to find a gusty day or a rainstorm intruding on those plans.

Of course, for many around the world, events over the past few years have intervened, in the form of the Covid pandemic. Perpetual rounds of lockdowns, quarantines, travel restrictions, and mask mandates have everyone beyond frustrated, and impatient for the end.

With restrictions on travel finally lifted, Americans have a chance to resume the activities they have missed for the past several years. And as they do so, the trees in the nation’s capital provide a tangible — and very temporary — reminder to, as Robert Herrick might say, gather ye cherry blossoms while ye may.

Happy spring.


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