Rob Defeo: Floral Forecaster (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

Transcripts

Rob DeFeo: Floral Forecaster

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:30:02
While we have trees on the brain, there's a certain type of tree that isn't indigenous to the area but especially at this time of year, it's pretty hard to miss. I'm talking, of course, about those famous cherry trees. And you know spring has sprung in Washington when their blossoms bust out in all their pink and white glory. Each year the task of predicting the blossoms peak bloom falls to one man. Julie Edwards took a drive with this floral fortune teller, two weeks before the first day of his predicted peak to learn his secret.

MS. JULIA EDWARDS

13:30:35
I meet Rob DeFeo on March 15th as dawn is breaking over the Potomac. He cannot stop looking out the window.

MR. ROB DEFEO

13:30:41
Most people don't drive with me because they say I don't watch the road. We're always looking at trees. And after being around here for 20 years, like, I know so many trees my whole life.

EDWARDS

13:30:51
DeFeo is the chief horticulturalist for the national park service.

DEFEO

13:30:54
I get called all the time and they say, Rob, you know who -- such and such a tree, such and such a place? I know exactly what tree you're talking about.

EDWARDS

13:31:01
It's exactly two weeks before the date DeFeo has predicted to be the first day of the cherry blossoms peak bloom. But, wait, you're probably thinking you've seen the blossoms for weeks. Let DeFeo set you straight.

DEFEO

13:31:12
The first bloom is actually occurring right now. But the bloom that everybody is concerned about is the yoshino cherry which is the predominant white flowering cherry around the tidal basin. And then this year based on what I know right now, I have forecast that the majority of them will be in bloom between the 29th of March and the 3rd of April.

EDWARDS

13:31:32
DeFeo's forecast does not affect the schedule of the cherry blossom festival. Those dates are set years in advance. But it does carry weight with the millions of tourists who make plans to come see Washington's cherry blossoms at their fullest.

DEFEO

13:31:44
And I've been cursed out by some people, you know, where I thought it was going to be and they came that weekend and, you know, the peak was Tuesday instead of Sunday and they missed it. And they've left nasty messages. But for the most part, I -- it's just part of the job. It doesn't really bother me.

EDWARDS

13:32:00
DeFeo's thick skin not only keeps pressure from the public at bay, it also keeps any fame from going to his head. He's been asked to ride in the parade at the cherry blossom festival every year. And every year, he's turned it down. Instead he has a certain group of people take his place.

MR. ALONZO MCBRIDE

13:32:14
Every year. A lot of people give us that credit. It makes you feel real good.

EDWARDS

13:32:18
DeFeo and I come upon Alonzo McBride and his fellow tree pruners on a patch of green across the river from the Jefferson Memorial. Around the trunk from McBride, James Mitchell is hoisting a huge saw toward the delicate pink buds.

MR. JAMES MITCHELL

13:32:30
And, you know, we could cut bigger pieces with that and real larger pieces, we use a chainsaw. But -- and then this is a pull pruner, just a clip so we can -- you know, like, this is a thin branch, you couldn't really cut that with a saw. So we just go up here to cut it back to another limb.

EDWARDS

13:32:56
Mitchell, McBride and their colleague, Charles Jones prune with a crew of seven every January through March.

MCBRIDE

13:33:02
Let's talk about our necks be hurting from looking up all day. When we go home, we want to just look down.

EDWARDS

13:33:10
Ever -- McBride's career, the crew has dwindled from 12 to seven. As pruners have retired and not been replaced because of budget cuts. The cherry trees are about to lose one more protector at this year, it's DeFeo's last. Unlike the retiring tree pruners, the budget will pay to replace DeFeo. He says he'll get his successor this advice...

DEFEO

13:33:28
Don't say what you don't know. Only say what you do know. And if what you knew last week is different this week, then just, you know, change your forecast. And that's basically what I do.

EDWARDS

13:33:39
An unexpected warm spell sped up the blossoms growth last year. And they bloomed before the date DeFeo forecasted. That was only the third time DeFeo has been wrong in what is now a 20 year career. But he's keeping cool, as always. DeFeo bets, when his voice airs, you'll be enjoying the fourth day of the cherry blossom peak.

DEFEO

13:33:58
This here is April 1st and you'll know if I was right or wrong at that point. But, I think, you know, I've been doing this a long time, I think, they're sure I have it -- have it right.

EDWARDS

13:34:09
And DeFeo says, the recent cold weather will make the peak last longer. So for the next several days, if you drive around those famous trees, you too might have a little trouble keeping your eyes on the road. I'm Julia Edwards.
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