Answering your cherry blossom questions

March 25, 2011

The scenes that kids and adults have been seeing out of Japan for the past two weeks have been frightening and sad. But when Egor Federov, a third-grader at Stoddert Elementary in the District, thinks of Japan, he thinks of Washington’s flowering cherry trees. “I think how beautiful Japan must be,” he said while working on an art project on the blossoms earlier this month.

In 1912, Japan gave the United States more than 3,000 young cherry trees as a symbol of friendship between the two countries. 

Now, for several weeks in March and April, thousands and thousands of people will come to the Tidal Basin near the Jefferson Memorial, ooohing and ahhhing as they gaze at a mass of pink and white blossoms that seem to say, “Spring is here!” This year especially, visiting the blossoms will be a reminder of the natural beauty of Japan, the strength of its people and the importance of the friendship between our countries. Ann Cameron Siegal answers some questions kids might have about the beautiful blossoms.

Are any of the original trees still there? 

Diagonally across the Tidal Basin from the Jefferson Memorial, there is a stone marker showing where the first two trees were planted 99 years ago. 

Some cherry trees live for about 60 years, but the Park Service takes very good care of these national treasures and estimates that those near the marker are much older. Some people think the two trees closest to the marker are original ones, but no one is sure.

However, over the years the National Park Service preserved the genetic makeup of the first trees, growing new plants from cuttings taken from older ones. Several hundred of our younger trees are relatives of the original ones.

How can you tell the old trees from younger ones?

Young cherry tree bark is glossy, with horizontal lines called lenticels.  Some have wire wrappings around their trunks to keep beavers away. Those critters love the young trees’ sap.

As cherry trees age, they often develop calluses: large, rough bumps that are actually protective coverings the tree produces to protect wounds on its bark. “Gnarly” (pronounced narl-lee) is a good descriptive word for the old trees, because it means they look knotted and twisted.

How do the cherry trees get their pretty shape?

Tree specialists called arborists are trained to prune our cherry trees so their shape and structure will help them last for decades. For months before the trees bloom each year, arborists carefully examine each one, cutting out deadwood, checking for disease and trimming weak branches.

Are all of the cherry trees the same kind?

  No. There are more than a dozen varieties of cherry trees on display at the Tidal Basin, the Washington Monument and East Potomac Park. The most common is the Yoshino cherry tree, which blooms early, before its leaves develop.

Can I get cherries from these trees?

No. These flowering cherry trees don’t produce the yummy cherries that people buy in the grocery store. They produce very small, fleshy seeds that are quite bitter, but birds like them.

What can I do to help preserve our cherry trees?

First, don’t pick the blossoms. Leave them for all to enjoy.

Treat cherry tree bark just as carefully as you would your skin, because it is very thin and easily damaged.

Cherry tree limbs are very fragile. As tempting as it is to climb up onto one of the cherry tree branches so your parents can take a photo of you among the blossoms, please don’t.  The branches might not support your weight.

Just look — especially at some of the old tree trunks. They are often hollow and appear to be decaying, but you’ll find roots and new branches growing there.

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