Cherry blossoms likely to ride out frigid weather to put on ‘glorious show’

Most of the cherry blossoms along D.C.’s Tidal Basin are in stage two of blooming. (WTOP/Sarah Jacobs)
Cherry blossoms have begun to bloom along the Tidal Basin. Peak bloom is expected between March 22 and March 25. (WTOP/Sarah Jacobs)
Because the cherry blossoms are not in stage four or five yet, the upcoming cold temperatures are not likely to damage them. (WTOP/Sarah Jacobs)

Unpredictable D.C. weather and finicky cherry blossoms aren’t always a good combination. But despite the upcoming plunge in temperatures, Mike Litterst of the National Mall is optimistic the cherry blossom trees along the Tidal Basin can weather the cold in time for peak bloom later this month.

Snow is actually not a problem for the trees, said Litterst, spokesman for the National Mall. Freezing temperatures are another story.

“What we’re definitely keeping an eye on are the temperatures this coming weekend,” he told WTOP on Thursday. “Blossoms can be damaged starting at 27 degrees; 24 degrees is a critical temperature. You can lose 90% of the blossoms. And I think the forecast lows this weekend are 25 and 21 (degrees) on Saturday and Sunday.

“In 2017, we did lose about half of the blossoms because we had a really late hard freeze,” he added. “Fortunately, the trees aren’t quite as far along this year.”

Damage tends to occur during stage five of blooming. “The fact that we’re only stage two, maybe stage three, we should be able to ride this one out,” Litterst said.

That means peak bloom is still expected to occur between March 22 and March 25 this year.

It also means large crowds will soon descend on the Tidal Basin, especially now that most COVID-19 restrictions in the area have been lifted. As a result, “there is much more a sense of anticipation and excitement this year for cherry blossoms than we had the last couple years,” Litterst said.

“We were literally in the middle of peak bloom when, you know, the first cases hit D.C. It was still so new that I think a lot of people weren’t quite sure what to make of it or how to handle it,” he said.

“But there’s something almost irresistible about those cherry blossoms, and so I’m not surprised that even in the midst of everything that was going on last couple years, you know, people (were) looking for some sign of hope or excitement and the cherry blossoms can always provide that.”

That excitement, though, draws throngs of visitors. Organizers of the National Cherry Blossom Festival estimate that about 1.5 million people attend events during the four-week festival, which runs from March 20 to April 17 this year.

Litterst advises that people come early “because the crowds just increase as the day goes on. If you’re able to do it during the week, that’s much better.”

He also said to pack your patience.

“There are going to be a lot of people around. Don’t even try to drive down here. You know, that’s just a frustrating effort of futility,” he said. “Take Metro. Take the Circulator. Hop on a scooter to save yourself sort of that frustration.”

And respect the trees.

“As tempting as it is, don’t pick the blossoms. Don’t take any branches. Don’t climb the trees. They can often be more fragile than they look,” Litterst said. “And when you can, stay on the footpath to give those roots a break.”

Litterst said we lose an average of 90 trees a year because of storms or age — cherry blossom trees live about 40 to 50 years — although National Mall officials have implemented new techniques such as wood chips around the trees to better protect them.

“So the trees themselves are in good shape,” Litterst said. “So it should be the usual glorious show that everybody expects every year.”

WTOP’s Sarah Jacobs and Mike Murillo contributed to this report.

Anna Gawel

Anna Gawel joined WTOP in 2020 and works in both the radio and digital departments. Anna Gawel has spent much of her career as the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat, which has been the flagship publication of D.C.’s diplomatic community for over 25 years.

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