2016-03-21 15.34.37

The Peaking of the Cherry Blossoms

The blooming of the Yoshino cherry tree blossoms surrounding the Tidal Basin is anticipated by many people in much the same way that small children anticipate the arrival of Santa at Christmastime. The beautiful blooms of the cherry blossom are looked forward to all winter because they are one of the surest and most celebrated signs of spring. But the peak blooming period varies from year to year. In fact, it can vary by over a month. Unseasonably warm or cool temperatures have resulted in peak bloom as early as March 15.  That occurred in 1990.  And they have peaked as late as April 18, as happened in 1958, according to the National Park Service.

Now, I’m fortunate in that I live in the D.C. area and can see them whenever they arrive. But if you live outside of the area and want to see this springtime spectacular, how do you know when the best time to plan to travel here is? Well, much like the weather, you have to rely on predictions for when the peak of the blooming process will occur.

The point at which the cherry blossoms are at their peak is the date on which 70 percent of the area’s Yoshino cherry blossoms are open. But leading up to this, there are several developmental stages that precede full bloom which the trees go through to reach that point. Many amateur cherry blossom watchers eagerly monitor these stages to try and predict when the peak will be. However, responsibility for the official prediction falls to the National Park Service’s Chief Horticulturalist for the National Capital Region, Robert DeFeo. Each year in early March, Mr. DeFeo announces when peak bloom is most likely to occur around the Tidal Basin. He reads nature’s clues at each stage of the process, meticulously follows the weather forecasts, and then ventures out on a limb with an educated guess.

A brief walk through the stages of the process may be helpful in understanding what Mr. DeFeo and others consider in making their predictions. The first sign of their imminent arrival are when green buds emerge on the trees’ branches. This occurs even before the leaves begin to appear on the trees. In the second stage, florets begin to appear, and then extend themselves from the buds. This occurs anywhere between 12 and 17 days before peak bloom. The third stage in the process is referred to as peduncle elongation. But this is not as complexly scientific as the name makes it sound. Peduncle elongation simply means that the small stalk connecting each bloom to the tree’s branch grows. When this occurs, the blooms are almost certain to blossom in at least five days, but not more than ten days. The next-to-last stage in the blooming process is when the blossoms begin to get puffy, signaling that there are just four to six days to peak bloom. And then, finally, the peak bloom stage arrives.

However, demonstrating how inexact and subject to change the predictions are for when D.C.’s cherry blossoms will reach their peak, this year’s original prediction, issued on March 2nd and predicting the peak to occur between March 31st and April 3rd, had to be revised. Cooler temperatures than what had been previously forecast resulted in the prediction being revised less than a week after it was originally made. The revised forecast is now for this year’s peak bloom to occur between last Thursday (March 18th), and this Wednesday (March 23rd). That meant today should have been right in the middle of the cherry blossoms peak bloom time.

So on today’s lunchtime bike ride I decided to ride to the Tidal Basin to enjoy the spring spectacle. But I ended up feeling like someone who took an umbrella with me because I listened to a weatherman’s prediction for thunderstorms, but then I didn’t see a drop of rain. The cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin are nowhere near their peak. They are making steady process. But they seem to be taking their time.

The National Park Service has narrowed its most recent prediction, estimating the peak to occur this Wednesday or Thursday.  But from what I observed today, I’d estimate that the majority of the blooms are in the peduncle elongation stage, with peak bloom still potentially ten days away.  With warmer weather arriving soon, and then rain predicted for this weekend, I guess this year we will have to just wait and see what happens.

20160311_141244     2016-03-21 14.55.17     2016-03-21 14.06.22

2016-03-21 14.13.26     2016-03-21 14.56.48
Stages of Development
1 – Green Buds   2 – Florets Visible   3 – Peduncle Elongation
4 – Puffy White   5 – Peak Bloom

[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size, high resolution photos]

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