Nature Tour

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Editorial Review

Flowering Finds, Minus the Foot Traffic

By Holly E. Thomas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 27, 2009

It happens every year as the breezes blow a little warmer and coax millions of reticent cherry blossoms from the safety of their protective buds. A stroll under the pink, frothy blooms sounds so enticing and "Great Gatsby"-esque; how could you resist? But then you arrive at the Tidal Basin alongside thousands of others with the same great idea, and suddenly the stroll turns into a jostle, and nature's bounty starts to feel more like a tourist trap. Psst! What if there were another way to take it all in?

Thanks to its decidedly off-the-beaten path location, the U.S. National Arboretum is somewhat of a hidden jewel in the capital's crown. And come cherry blossom season, the 446-acre park is an ideal place for perusing the ethereal foliage without stepping on a single tourist's toes. During the official festival (Saturday through April 12), the arboretum plots a self-guided tour of flowering cherry trees, designed to showcase the varying sizes, shapes, colors and blooming times.

Since this year's peak is predicted to occur April 1-4 your best bet is to check out the early-flowering specimens, which are expected to burst into bloom this weekend. Keep in mind that the trees are scattered around the arboretum's expanse, so it's easiest to drive or bike from one location to the next. (A 35-minute tram tour will start up again April 11.)

First, visit the 25-foot-tall specimen of a variety called Dream Catcher, outside the Visitor Services building. It blooms a soft pink against the backdrop of the National Capitol Columns, which loomed over the inaugurations of presidents from Andrew Jackson through Dwight Eisenhower before being moved to the arboretum.

Next, cruise down Azalea Road, where you'll spot Tai Haku and Fudanzakura trees just beyond the parking area. On the east side of the grounds, the Flowering Tree Collection off Hickey Hill Road is home to a group of young cherry trees, including the weeping white Snofozam, the dark-leaved Royal Burgundy and a stand of Autumnalis Rosea, which produces delicate pink blooms in spring and fall.

Just past the Dogwood Collection, take in the Okame tree, which ushers in spring with vibrant deep-pink blossoms. Finally, wrap up your visit at the two research fields off Hickey Lane. For these flowering cherry trees, the bloom dates run from late March to early May, the colors vary from icy white to dark pink, and the trees vary in shape and size, which is why arboretum scientists choose traits from these specimens when creating new varieties.

True, it's not as pedestrian-friendly as the Tidal Basin. But the reward lies in an abundance of the precious blossoms and a blissfully crowd-free couple of acres to yourself.

Where is it? There is an alternate entrance at 24th and R streets NE, off Bladensburg Road. On weekdays, take the B2 Metrobus from the Stadium-Armory Metro station to the Rand Street stop. Walk back to R Street, and continue two blocks to the arboretum entrance. The arboretum is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
If you have more than three hours: Bring a picnic lunch and spread out a blanket in view of the Capitol columns to feel as if you're on a European holiday. Or peruse the impressive National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, then commune with the enormous koi in the pond outside the Visitor Services building.