Persistent frigid temperatures and a blustery snowstorm early in the week have ravaged about half of the city’s cherry blossoms, leaving them unable to bloom this year. Most of the remaining buds are expected to fully bloom by the end of next week, National Park Service officials said Friday.
Mike Litterst, a spokesman for the Park Service, described the scenario as venturing into “uncharted territory” for the city. The damage could have been worse, he said, with up to 90 percent of buds threatened because they were far along in the blooming process as the cold snap arrived.
Since the cherry blossoms are lush and dense along the Tidal Basin, Litterst said, those hoping for a spectacular show still shouldn’t be disappointed.
“It’s a glass half-full, glass half-empty situation,” he said.
There are about 3,800 cherry blossom trees in the city, the bulk of which are along the Tidal Basin. The city is home to several varieties of cherry blossom trees, although 70 percent are Yoshino trees.
The damage assessments and predictions of bloom dates are based on examinations of the Yoshino trees.
The cold temperatures killed the blossoms that were in their fifth and final stage before full bloomed, known as the puffy stage. About 50 percent of the cherry blossoms were in this stage.
Experts studied the buds in the fourth stage of the blooming process, called peduncle elongation, and determined that only about 5 percent of these likely died, Litterst said.
Any tree can have blossoms with varying degrees of damage. A single tree might have a mixture of buds that are dead and others expected to fully bloom. Dead buds turn brown, wilt on the tree and eventually fall away.
“This is something that has never happened in the 105-year history of cherry blossoms in D.C.,” Litterst said.
The cold weather didn’t harm the trees, and damage to the buds won’t affect future blooms, he said.
Washington had a week with back-to-back hard freezes, with the coldest morning occurring Wednesday, when the temperature fell to 22 degrees. That was the hardest night on the blossoms, said Michael Stachowicz, turf management specialist for the Mall and Memorial Parks. The second-coldest morning occurred a day later with a temperature of 24 degrees.
The unseasonably cold weather followed a February that was the city’s warmest on record, which pushed the trees out of hibernation and into flower-growing mode. By the second week of March, the trees were in a variety of stages.
The blossoms fared well in the snowstorm, officials said, but were damaged in the biting temperatures that followed.
The loss of nearly 50 percent of the buds is expected to push the peak bloom date to late next week or the weekend. “Peak bloom” refers to the point when 70 percent of the cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin are in bloom.
The Park Service had predicted that peak bloom would fall between March 19 and 22.
The peak bloom delay isn’t because of remaining buds blooming more slowly, Litterst said, but because buds that had been expected to bloom the earliest will no longer bloom. Without these early bloomers, the moment that 70 percent are considered in full bloom is pushed back.
“We’ve lost half our data points that we intended to use,” Litterst said.
Diana Mayhew, president of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, said the damage won’t alter the month-long event. The festival’s Tidal Basin stage and welcome area will open Saturday.
She said uncertainties this week regarding the fate of the cherry blossoms haven’t triggered a rush of hotel cancellations. Officials have said hotel bookings this year are on pace with previous years.
The festival programming, Mayhew said, 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 have all indications that tourism has not been hurt by this,” she said.
Angela Fritz and Kevin Ambrose contributed to this report.