A day after a snowstorm shut down the region for what seemed like the 50th time this winter, attention turned on Tuesday to a far less punishing season as National Park Service officials announced the kickoff for the annual springtime celebration of Washington’s famed cherry trees.
At a news conference at the Newseum, James Perry, chief of resource management for the Park Service, sought to assure a winter-weary crowd that the resilient trees braved the elements and should reach peak bloom between April 8 and 12. While the expected period falls later than usual this year, Perry said peak bloom time should provide a “very fitting finale” for this year’s National Cherry Blossom Festival.
“My message this morning is relax and let Mother Nature take her course,” Perry said. “This has not been the coldest winter on record or the snowiest, and these trees have been around for 102 years. We know pretty well how they’re going to react and what Mother Nature might have in store for us.”
This year’s festival runs March 20 through April 13, with its signature parade set for the second-to-last day. The five winners of a new singing contest will participate in the parade, joining a celebrity lineup that includes pop star Aaron Carter and Grammy Award-winning gospel singer Regina Bell.
Hailed as the “nation’s greatest springtime celebration,” the festival marks the anniversary of Japan’s gift of 3,000 trees to Washington in 1912. Kenichiro Sasae, Japan’s ambassador to the United States, said Tuesday that the festival is like the Super Bowl or Christmas for his embassy, a prime opportunity to build and showcase cultural connections between the two countries.
The festival brings more than 1.5 million visitors and residents to the District to see the cherry blossoms surrounding the Tidal Basin, according to organizers. Traditionally, the festivities have also drawn first ladies, from Helen Taft to Michelle Obama, who served as honorary chair of the centennial event two years ago.
Seen as the unofficial beginning of spring, the peak bloom date marks when 70 percent of the blossoms are open. Last year, the Park Service forecasted peak bloom between April 6 and 8. It ended up arriving a day late on April 9.
Despite the later-than-usual prediction, Perry said the trees are “doing what Mother Nature intended them to do” and have not been damaged by the cold or snow to his knowledge.
But the latest storm, which dumped up to 8 inches of snow on some parts of the Washington region, was difficult to ignore as speaker after speaker touted the festival. Bob Vogel, superintendent of the National Mall and Memorial Parks, noted that only two members of the Park Service’s tree crew could attend the news conference because the rest were still dealing with the aftermath of the snowfall.
Perry, meanwhile, joked that cherry blossom fans could spot the trees amid the fresh snow near the Tidal Basin — only if they squinted. And Diana Mayhew, president of the festival, guaranteed that no storm could stop the event, even as residents continued digging out.
“One thing we can count on is the cherry blossoms will bloom, spring will come and the national festival will be in full bloom,” she said. “Let’s just hope they all coincide together.”