The chief horticulturist at the National Park Service always made sure to drop by the desk of one person for some advice before issuing his forecast for when the cherry blossoms would reach their peak.
Rob DeFeo, whose predictions have become a much-ballyhooed annual rite, is on his own this year. Eleanor Moffatt died in January at 90 after serving as a secretary and a volunteer at the agency for 66 years.
DeFeo announced his forecast for this year's bloom yesterday after stopping at the Tidal Basin in the morning chill for a look at the trees, which he described as "the most reliable living species in Washington, D.C."
He said it took him all of two seconds to reach his conclusion: Somewhere between April 4 and April 9, the 3,700 trees will be in peak bloom.
Or at least that's his best guess at the moment. The temperatures could warm up over the next few weeks. Or they could fall.
"If you predict it this early, it's a crapshoot," he acknowledged after a news conference to promote the National Cherry Blossom Festival, which begins March 26.
DeFeo, who took over as the chief horticulturist 15 years ago, said organizers at one time held the news conference only a few days before the festival began, which made it easier to forecast the peak bloom. Now, to promote tourism, the publicity tour begins at least three weeks before the festival.
Nevertheless, he said, 13 of his forecasts in the past 15 years have been accurate. Like two of his predecessors, he said, he always consulted with Moffatt, a D.C. resident who retired from the agency in 1994 and spent the next 10 years as a volunteer.
To the end of her career, she refused to learn how to operate a computer, preferring to use a typewriter. She was the last secretary at the National Park Service who was able to take shorthand.
Her blossom predictions, DeFeo said, were based on intuition and experience that stretched back to the Roosevelt administration, as opposed to any knowledge of trees.
"If you didn't check with Eleanor first, you'd be wrong," he said. "It was almost like superstition.
"We always used to say that she had direct contact with the man upstairs," he said. "If I needed a few cold nights to make sure my forecast was right, I'd go to Eleanor."
But he said she was never a fan of the festival, which typically ties up traffic downtown and made it harder for her to get home from work. "She said George Washington had the right idea when he cut down the cherry tree," he said.
The 93rd annual festival, which will run through April 10, celebrates the 3,000 cherry trees that Japan gave to the people of Washington in 1912. This year's festival will feature 90 events, including the Cherry Blossom Parade on April 9 on Constitution Avenue. Mickey Mouse will be the grand marshal.
The event is as much for out-of-towners as it is for the hometown crowd. William A. Hanbury, president of the Washington, D.C., Convention and Tourism Corp., predicted that the festival would draw 1 million tourists.
At yesterday's news conference, the organizers spent as much time introducing corporate sponsors as they did on the festival itself. They acknowledged that the audience of reporters was mostly interested in DeFeo's annual forecast, which they scheduled for the end to make sure everyone would stick around.
DeFeo said that when he began issuing the forecast, he found the publicity surrounding his pronouncement "sort of silly." But he took it more seriously, he said, once he "realized that an awful lot of people plan their vacations around what I say."
DeFeo said he gave incorrect forecasts in 1990 and in 2000, when the trees bloomed in mid-March. He said that making a forecast is not easy, particularly three weeks before the festival begins. But he said he would adjust his prediction as the celebration approaches.
No one wants to hear this, he said, but at this point, "I'm more comfortable telling people I don't have a clue."