Washington celebrates National Cherry Blossom Festival

The pink flowers lining the Potomac River were a gift to the city from Tokyo mayor Yukio Ozaki in 1912

In the US capital, it's not springtime until the Japanese cherry blossoms bloom.

The annual National Cherry Blossom Festival ends Sunday after nearly a month's worth of virtual and outdoor events celebrating the trees, their roots in Japan and the home they have found in Washington.

The delicate pink flowers lining the Potomac River were a gift from Tokyo mayor Yukio Ozaki to Washington in 1912.

The gift of 3,000 cherry trees brought a centuries-old Japanese celebration to the people of the US. Every year, the city has celebrated the spirit of spring with the National Cherry Blossom Festival.

"We continue to celebrate the roots of that and honour the culture and history of Japan and that is really important to us," the president of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, Diana Mayhew, told The National. "The festival is here to connect people, to remind us of a piece of international friendship, that we are unified and we hope to continue that."

This year, an early peak bloom in both Japan and the US provided another connection between the Washington festival and the trees' mother country.

‘Peak bloom’ is when 70 per cent of the Yoshino cherry blossoms open and varies annually depending on weather. In Kyoto, flowers reached peak bloom on March 26, the earliest since the year 812, according to expansive records from Osaka University.

In Washington this year, peak bloom was not particularly early considering historic records, but it did come several days before original National Park Service predictions due to warmer temperatures at the end of March.

It’s not the first time this has happened. According to National Park Service records, extraordinarily warm or cool temperatures have resulted in peak bloom as early as March 15, like in 1990, and as late as April 18, back in 1958.

While 2021’s bloom was not particularly historic on its own, data has shown an increasingly earlier peak bloom trend over the last ten years.

This is the second year that the Covid-19 pandemic has affected the festival, which usually draws large crowds to the Tidal Basin during peak bloom.


"Normally, we attract 1.5 million people from all over the world," said Ms Mayhew.

The city closed down numerous roadways around the Tidal Basin to vehicles but kept all areas open to pedestrians and cyclists.

Muted crowding occurred along the Tidal Basin this year, with particular clusters around the Dr Martin Luther King Jr Memorial. But Ms Mayhew says, all things considered, crowd control through the pandemic has been largely successful.

"We put that message out constantly, to please wear a mask, socially distance and apply all the guidelines," she said.

"We don't get the hundreds of thousands of people that normally come down. I think we've done a really great job."

Under Ms Mayhew and her team, cherry blossom celebrations have expanded beyond the pink-skirted Tidal Basin, spilling out into the streets of the city and neighbouring states of Maryland and Virginia, with art shows, restaurant specials and more. For the team at the National Cherry Blossom Festival, celebrating that history with Japan is just as important as celebrating the District of Columbia as a local community.

“The festival has really become a community, and [Washington] continues to remember how much [we] appreciate this treasure in our own town and has become part of the festival by decorating porches, kite flying,” said Ms Mayhew. “The people are becoming the festival.”

One way the festival has moved into the city and surrounding areas is the addition of 26 cherry blossom flower sculptures. The National Cherry Blossom Festival hosted a competition for artists to submit their designs to paint them.

Among the winners was Woojung Lee, a Graphic Design student at nearby Northern Virginia Community College. Her design, entitled 2021: Hoping 2021 Is Like the Sunrise, was inspired by the pandemic.

“2020 was the hardest year for everyone,” she said.

“I couldn’t do anything, had to stay home because of Covid. That made me really frustrated and depressed ... but I started to notice the sunrise more. And it was a reminder that the sun will rise. [My design says] the sun will rise, just keep going, there will be a new day.”

It's a message the festival's president believes gets to the heart of what cherry blossom season means in Washington.

"The blossoms themselves give this sense of hope, renewal, new beginnings. I think it's why so many people come to see them. It brings people joy, it gives them that moment to really remember all of the positive things in the world," said Ms Mayhew.

“But also that things are fleeting, let’s appreciate them while we have them because they are going to be gone. I think that really draws people.”

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