A roller-coaster weather pattern bringing a surge of frigid weather to the nation’s capital this weekend might damage a significant portion of the beloved cherry blossoms and thwart travelers’ plans to see the flowers at their peak.
The cold snap could harm plants that already have buds on the brink of bursting out, resulting in up to 90 percent of these never reaching full bloom. The National Park Service said this week that 70 percent of the buds are in this stage, known as peduncle elongation.
“If we experience loss of the blossoms, it is certainly unfortunate, but it is part of the natural process,” said Mike Litterst, a spokesman for the Park Service.
The Park Service predicted last week that Washington’s unseasonably warm February would usher the blossoms to peak bloom at a possibly record-early date, between March 14 and March 17.
That was before a bout with unseasonably cold weather this weekend that could drop temperatures into the low 20s, with snow possible Monday night and Tuesday.
The cold snap prompted the Park Service to push back its prediction to between March 19 and March 22. “Peak bloom” refers to the point when 70 percent of the cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin are in bloom.
Even if the worst-case scenario plays out, Cherry Blossom Festival organizers say they aren’t concerned it will hinder tourists.
Diana Mayhew, president of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, said the month-long event that begins March 15 attracts tourists on its own. It features a Japanese street festival, musical performances, a kite festival and a fireworks show. The flagship parade is scheduled for April 8 along Constitution Avenue before the festival wraps up April 16.
“We still have the events as scheduled,” Mayhew said. “It’s still nature’s kickoff of spring, not only in Washington but across the country.”
Mayhew said the weather poses uncertainty for the cherry blossoms each year, but the show always goes on. Organizers will wait out the current cold spell to determine what information to relay to the public about the state of the blossoms.
“We certainly do want to manage expectations when it comes to blossoms, but we likely won’t be able to know until after the cold snap,” Mayhew said. “Things change by the minute. It’s a wait-and-see game.”
Elliott Ferguson, president of Destination D.C. — the nonprofit organization behind the city’s tourism and convention marketing — said hotel bookings for the month of the Cherry Blossom Festival are on pace with last year’s bookings. Hotel bookings also are boosted by spring break, Congress being in session and a busy convention season.
Ferguson said the uncertainty of the cherry blossoms can be a boon to the city’s tourism industry. Visitors book hotels when peak bloom predictions are announced but rarely move their reservations if the prediction changes. That brings a new rush of visitors making travel plans near the amended dates.
“It prolongs the opportunity to get more people into the city because some people make plans and don’t change them, and others make short-term plans,” Ferguson said. “There is no guarantee of what will or won’t happen, or what will or won’t bloom, but it will still be a spectacular opportunity to come into the city.”
Michael Stachowicz, the turf management specialist for the Mall and Memorial Parks, said that when the temperature drops to 27 or 28 degrees for half an hour, damage to about 10 percent of the blossoms can occur. But if temperatures fall to 24 or 25 degrees over three days — overnight lows in the 20s are forecast through early next week — 90 percent can be killed.
The cherry trees are next to the water of the Tidal Basin, which has a moderating influence on temperatures, but Stachowicz said the blooms are still likely to suffer. The magnitude won’t be known until milder weather returns.
“I think we’re going to get some damage,” he said. “I don’t want to be alarmist about it, but we’ve been brought along to a tender stage.”
Jason Samenow contributed to this report.