The obvious answer is because their blossoms are pretty to look at and they signify the start of spring. The other reason, which many people non-DC residents may not know, is that the National Cherry Blossom Festival actually celebrates the United States and Japan's close friendship and commemorates the original gift of 3,000 cherry trees from the Mayor Yukio Oazki of Tokyo to the City of Washington.
A brief history lesson.
On March 27, 1912, First Lady Helen Herrron Taft and Viscountress Chinda, wife of the Japanese Ambassador planted the first two trees along the Tidal Basin. Since then, the United States has reciprocated with a gift of flowering dogwood trees, received 3,800 additional trees and even given cuttings from the original trees back to Japan to replace those lost in a flood. In its 98th year, the National Cherry Blossom Festival continues to host family-friendly activities that pay tribute to the culture, arts and friendship between our two countries.
Now a little bit about the cherry tree itself.
Japanese flowering cherry trees are native to Japan, produce beautiful flowers, and come in a variety of types. Today Washington has about 3,750 cherry trees of 16 varieties on National Park Service land and more on private and public lands. However, three cherry trees dominate in the District - Yoshino Cherry, Weeping Cherry and Kwanzan Cherry.
The Yoshino cherrywas the original type of cherry tree given to the U.S. by Japan in 1912. The best way to identify the Yoshino cherry is by its long (6 inches generally), elliptic-obovate, coarse leaves. Its flowers, most spectacular in late March and early April, are initially pale pink and later turn nearly white. This tree frames the Tidal Basin and can be found in East Potomac Park and on the U.S. Capitol and Library of Congress grounds.
The Weeping cherry (Weeping Higan Cherry) is considered one of Washington’s more spectacular varieties of flowering trees because of its long pendulous branchlets that produce clouds of pink or white blossoms. The flowers can be double or single: single flowers following a star-shape, and the more rare double flowers, bell-shaped. Try and catch these blossom in late March and early April before leaf formation. The Weeping cherry tree is found in East Potomac Park, on the U.S. Capitol grounds and around other landmarks across the District.
The Kwanzan cherrytree is also part of the original 1912 gift. Its blossom emerge approximately two weeks later than the Yoshino trees and boasts a deep pink double blossom. Look for these in mid April. Leaves range from 3-7.5 inches, and are ovate, doubly toothed with a coppery or purplish color initially, then become green. The Kwanzan trees are planted all over the city but are planted extensively in East Potomac Park.
If you want to learn more about these and the other types of cherry trees in the District, you can read City of Trees by naturist Melanie Choukas-Bradley who leads several of our free Tree Walks throughout the year.
Tomorrow we will tell you how you can locate where other cherry trees are planted across the City so you don't have to fight the crowds on the Tidal Basin.