Los Angeles Times

An early bloom for D.C.’s famed cherry blossoms

Climate change sends confusing signals to the trees, which were a gift from Japan.

- By Ashraf Khalil Khalil writes for the Associated Press.

WASHINGTON — The cherry trees in the nation’s capital are confused by Earth’s changing climate, with the iconic blossoms appearing earlier than expected because of the unusually warm winter.

Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser and the National Park Service announced Wednesday that Washington’s 3,700 cherry blossom trees would reach peak bloom this year from March 22 to 25. That’s several days earlier than observers and experts had expected.

“This has been a challengin­g year to read the trees,” said Jeff Reinbold, NPS superinten­dent for the National Mall and memorial parks. One of the warmest winters on record and dramatic f luctuation­s in temperatur­e have essentiall­y sent confusing signals to the trees.

The district’s winter featured dramatic temperatur­e shifts, including a week in February where it hit 81 degrees one day and briefly snowed two days later. The results, Reinbold said, are trees that he compared to a hormonal teenager. “There’s a lot going on in there,” he said.

The early bloom, by itself, isn’t a huge problem, unless the temperatur­es drop suddenly again now that the vulnerable blossoms are emerging. “An early frost would definitely damage the blossoms,” Reinbold said.

Diana Mayhew, president of the Cherry Blossom Festival, said this year’s bloom dates aren’t unpreceden­ted, but they’re the second-earliest she had witnessed in 23 years with the organizati­on.

As a result, the group has accelerate­d its own timetable, moving up multiple events planned at the Tidal Basin by a week.

Mayhew said she and city officials are expecting a boom year for the festival, which typically signals the unofficial start of D.C.’s tourist season. The 2020 cherry blossom season was essentiall­y wrecked in real time by the creeping shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, which was moving across the country just as the festival was holding news conference­s to announce that year’s peak bloom. Organizers finally were forced to cancel most in-person events.

Washington’s cherry blossoms date back 111 years to an original 1912 gift of 3,000 trees from the mayor of Tokyo. The Japanese Embassy has remained deeply involved in their maintenanc­e and in the annual festival — organizing a host of cherry blossom-themed events and performanc­es.

Koichi Ai, head of chancery for the Japanese Embassy, said Wednesday that the trees hold “special status” within Japanese culture. Their brief but spectacula­r bloom cycle represents “the transient nature of beauty and the everlastin­g cycle of life,” he said.

The 2021 Cherry Blossom Festival took place under pandemic restrictio­ns, with organizers offering online bloom-cams and multiple virtual events and activities. Last year’s season drew an estimated 1.1 million visitors — close to the pre-pandemic average of 1.5 million.

This year, Mayhew said she hopes to match or exceed those pre-pandemic numbers.

In their ongoing quest to maintain and protect the trees, NPS officials have to contend with a second climate change-related issue — regular flooding in the Tidal Basin because of rising sea levels. The 107-acre manmade reservoir where the largest concentrat­ion of trees is located now floods twice a day at high tide, submerging a stretch of sidewalk next to the Jefferson Memorial.

During heavy rains that routinely occur in Washington, the floodwater­s completely overflow the seawall in multiple locations and soak the tree roots with salty brackish water.

The original 1880s design of the Tidal Basin also simply wasn’t equipped to handle the kinds of crowds and traffic the area now receives. That traffic has only increased as more monuments have been added to the Tidal Basin area over the years: a memorial to Franklin Roosevelt opened in 1997, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial was inaugurate­d in 2011.

In 2019, the NPS, along with the Trust for the National Mall and the National Trust for Historic Preservati­on, launched a long-term project to rebuild the basin’s deteriorat­ing seawall and modify and expand sidewalks to accommodat­e modern crowds. Reinbold on Wednesday said funding for the project had been secured and the proposed changes were in the design stage.

The twin impacts of confusing temperatur­e shifts and Tidal Basin flooding represent a potential longterm threat to the health of the trees, said Chris Walsh, a professor emeritus of horticultu­re at the University of Maryland. Warmer winters and fluctuatin­g temperatur­es, he said, are producing similar early blooms this year in other flowering fruit trees such as apricots and pears.

“Everything’s ahead of schedule this year,” he said.

Since the cherry blossom trees aren’t relied on to produce fruit, the effect on them should be minimal and won’t harm the f lowers — provided that there isn’t a cold snap. However, Walsh said the arboreal confusion could affect the annual developmen­t of protective bark, which could ultimately “put a lot of stress on the trees” and shorten their life span.

“If you add the stress of the fluctuatin­g temperatur­es to the stress of salt on the roots, now you have two problems,” he said.

 ?? Andrew Harnik Associated Press ?? CHERRY blossoms in Washington, D.C. The district’s winter featured dramatic temperatur­e shifts — 81 degrees one day in February and snow the next two days.
Andrew Harnik Associated Press CHERRY blossoms in Washington, D.C. The district’s winter featured dramatic temperatur­e shifts — 81 degrees one day in February and snow the next two days.

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