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Want To See Washington's Cherry Blossoms Without The Crowds?

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Planted in 1952, this weeping-form Higan cherry blooms with the Yoshinos.
U.S. National Arboretum
Planted in 1952, this weeping-form Higan cherry blooms with the Yoshinos.

In less than a week, the District will be holding its big, blowout celebration of the season: the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival.

The festival commemorates the 3,000 cherry trees gifted to Washington by the mayor of Tokyo back in 1912. And this year, from March 20 through April 14, visitors will be treated to all sorts of delights, from cherry-blossom yoga and cherry-inspired foods to music, song and dance.

Traditionally, one might associate D.C.'s famous cherry blossoms with the Tidal Basin. After all, that's where more than 3,700 Yoshino Cherry trees are located in the area, with their delicate pink-white blossoms fanning out all around the 107-acre reservoir.

It is not, however, the only place to see flowering cherries this season.

The many varieties of cherry trees

The National Arboretum, located on New York Avenue in Northeast D.C., has about 1,600 cherry trees, in all sorts of varieties. And even better, it doesn't attract crowds of the size often seen at the Tidal Basin.

Starting this Monday, the Arboretum is offering visitors a self-guided tour of those trees, called "Beyond the Tidal Basin: Introducing Other Great Flowering Cherry Trees."

Margaret Pooler, a research geneticist at the Arboretum, says one of the varieties on the tour, the Okami cherry tree, is extra special.

"It's one of the earliest blooming ones that we have," she explains. "You can see it's not even mid-March and it's almost in full bloom now. Everything else is still brown, but here they are, giving us this hint that spring is just around the corner."

The Okami blossoms are a dark shade of pink, a darker shade than what's normally seen on the Tidal Basin Cherry. "Part of that is because one of their parents, a species called Prunus Companulata, the Taiwan Cherry, has a really dark, deep pink," she says.

Another distinctive cherry tree at the Arboretum, Pooler says, is Autumnalis Rosea.

"It's special because it blooms in the spring with all the rest of the flowering cherries, and it's got lots and lots of flower buds on it right now," Pooler says. "But what's neat about it is that it also flowers in the fall, not nearly as big of a bloom as the spring bloom, but it does give a pretty decent fall display. So it's kind of nice.

"One year, I think it was in full bloom at Thanksgiving, so visitors who happened to come by here then got to see a Thanksgiving flowering cherry."

The blossoms on this tree are a light pink, Pooler says, "whitish with a pink tinge, semi-double. That means they have somewhere around 20 petals per flower, as opposed to the true doubles, which are like the Kwanzan cherry. That's a true double, where it's got upwards of 25 or more petals per flower, versus the single blooms, which are only five petals."

Pooler says most people are surprised by the sheer variety of flowering cherries.

"It's pretty amazing," she remarks. "I think if you walk by [the Arboretum's] research collection, which is also one of our stops on the tour, you really can see all in one place, the diversity of flowering cherries. Because any time during the month-and-a-half that we have this tour going on, you'll see things that are just coming into bloom, things that are in full bloom, that are in finished bloom and are already starting to set seed.

"So you'll see every stage of bloom, plus different habits: everything from short shrubby plants to tall tree types. Different colors, from white to deep pink."

The District's expected tradition

Having lived and worked in D.C. for 16 years, Pooler says she's come to see a special connection between the flowering cherries and the District.

"I think that cherry trees are special [because] they're so constant and predictable. So in Washington, this year we've got sequestration and continuing resolutions, and all these things that no one knows what's going to happen. But we do know those cherry trees are going to bloom, no matter what. So I think that's kind of a comfort to a lot of us.

"I think also in D.C., we tend to get so busy and so overscheduled and go-go-go, that the cherries, they're only in bloom for a week or maybe ten days, so it kind of forces you to pause, take a break from all that, and stop and enjoy them, because they're not going to be there very long."


[Music: "They Say It's Spring" by Tommy Flanagan from Ballads & Blues]

Photos: Cherry Blossoms

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