How Climate Change is Impacting Washington’s Cherry Blossoms
In early March, hundreds of thousands of people descend upon the D.C. area for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. The event commemorates the gift of 3,000 cherry trees from the Mayor of Tokyo to the United States in 1912 as a token of solidarity and friendship between the two great nations.
Today, the cherry trees are primarily located around what is known as the Tidal Basin, which is about 107 acres in size and ten feet deep – constructed by the power of the tides in the Potomac River to help flush silt and sediment from the Washington Channel.
The Tidal Basin is part of West Potomac Park. It is surrounded by some of Washington, D.C.’s greatest memorials and buildings, including the Jefferson Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, FDR Memorial, the Floral Library, the Japanese Pagoda, and many others.
But come March and April, the most popular attraction are the cherry blossoms.
On March 27, 1912, Helen Herron Taft (President Taft’s wife) and Viscountess Chinda, the wife of the Japanese Ambassador, planted two Yoshino cherry trees on the north side of the Tidal Basin. Witnessed by only a few spectators, this would serve as the first Cherry Blossom Festival – increasing incrementally as time passed.
Interestingly enough, the two original trees planted by Taft and Chinda still stand near the John Paul Jones Memorial.
While the cherry trees have endured for decades through wars and unrest, they are now battling climate change, which is significantly altering their existence.
While there are close to 4,000 trees now thriving in the Tidal Basin, just one is known as the “indicator tree” as it blooms a week to ten days consistently before all the others. The National Park Service has come to rely on the tree’s consistency in helping to predict when the remaining trees will bloom in the early spring.
But an uncommonly warm winter in 2023 confused the indicator tree, and park representatives were quick to notice. Mike Litterst, an NPS spokesperson, says, “It is definitely showing buds on the tree, probably a couple of weeks ahead of where it was last year. The tree is located just east of the Jefferson Memorial.”
Since the tree’s plantings over 100 years ago, the average peak bloom date for the D.C. cherry blossoms has increased by about seven days, attributed to global warming.
Trees rely on weather patterns to know when to emerge from dormancy and begin blooming and maturing. When that pattern is disrupted, the tree can become confused, and if the weather turns too cold after blooming begins, it could spell disaster.
During an unseasonably warm winter, with no sudden shifts in temperature, the change in the growing cycle due to warmer weather patterns will not cause any damage to the tree. However, suppose the tree is budding, and a cold front moves in. In that case, the buds are exposed, which can cause incredible stress on the tree, which has been sending energy and nutrients to the buds, causing long-term damage to the cellular system.
As of March 23, 2023, the cherry blossom trees in Washington, D.C., are in full bloom. Though the indicator tree caused some alarm that an early bloom was eminent for the grove of trees, chilly temperatures in early March helped ward off blooming until the ideal time and conditions were present.
Still, this shows how climate change ultimately impacts the growing cycles of trees throughout the United States. For example, suppose the cherry trees of D.C. start to bloom in January due to an unseasonably warm winter. In that case, a cold front could cause irreparable damage to the over 100-year-old trees.
For more information on caring for your trees as they emerge from dormancy, contact your local SavATree branch today.