The Indicator Tree

There are approximately 1800 cherry trees surrounding the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park.  And every year the visual spectacle of their blooming draws tourists from all around the world. The most recent estimate by the National Park Service is that they will reach peak bloom between March 17th and 20th this year.  Peak bloom is the day when 70 percent of the blossoms are open in the trees around the Tidal Basin.  If the Park Service is correct, this year’s peak bloom will be quite early.  In the past, peak bloom has occurred as early as March 15th and as late as April 18th.

Because different trees can bloom ahead of or behind the average, the entire blooming period can last up to 14 days.  However, frost or high temperatures combined with wind or rain can shorten this period, which includes the days leading up to peak bloom. However, there is one particular tree that is consistently a week to ten days ahead of most of the others around the Tidal Basin.  Because of this distinctive trait, it has become known as “the indicator tree”, and it is used to get an idea of where the other trees will be in a week to ten days. It’s also one of the key pieces of the puzzle that the Park Service horticulturalists use in making their predictions.

There are no signs indicating which tree is the indicator tree. So unless it happens to be covered in blossoms while the other trees around it are not, you really have to know how to find it.  Here’s how: From the south end of the bridge on Ohio Drive looking towards the Jefferson Memorial, the walkway splits into two, with one path to the left going alongside the road and another path to the right, which then splits into two as it approaches the water of the Tidal Basin. The indicator tree is where the path to the right splits into two (MAP). It’s the first old-looking tree you come across and is standing right next to a large holly tree.

It’s not the most majestic of the old trees.  Not even close.  And it’s been severely pruned over the years. But for whatever reason, this tree can be counted on to provide advance warning of the much-anticipated peak bloom.

On today’s lunchtime bike ride I stopped by to see the indicator tree. The tree seemed to be several days, or maybe even a week or more away from blooming.  Also, the weather prediction is also calling for colder weather, including possible snow or wintery precipitation later this week, which may impact the timing of the peak bloom.  So if my reading of the indicator tree is accurate again this year, the peak bloom may occur later and the Park Service’s prediction may have to be revised.

I am fortunate enough to be able to see the cherry blossoms every day, from the: initial green color in the buds; to when the florets are visible; through the peduncle elongation stage; and when the buds turn puffy white; and then, finally, when they are in full or peak bloom.  But if you aren’t as fortunate and are traveling here from out of town to see the blossoms, keep checking to see if the Park Service revises their prediction.  However, as it stands now, the park service says you should be here in D.C. starting on March 17th.  And since that’s St. Patrick’s Day, you should consider stopping by the Irish embassy and/or having a green beer and a Reuben at one of the city’s many Irish pubs while you’re here.

         

    
[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

UPDATE:  On March 12th, the National Park Service revised its prediction for the cherry blossoms peak bloom, shifting it0 back ten days later than it initially predicted.  They are now saying peak bloom is likely to occur between March 27th and 31st.⠀

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