From record February heat to unforgiving cold and wicked winds in March and April, Mother Nature threw everything at the Tidal Basin’s famed cherry trees. But finally, on Thursday, the National Park Service declared that the cherry blossoms had hit peak bloom.
The April 5 peak is the latest since 2014 and 2015, when the blossoms reached full bloom April 10, and about a week later than the recent 30-year average of March 31.
“Best viewing of the Yoshino trees will be for the next 4-7 days, but under ideal conditions they can hold their blossoms for up to two weeks,” the National Park Service said in a tweet.
While Friday will be breezy, temperatures into the 60s will be very inviting for viewing the blossoms. But the unseasonably cold conditions this weekend into early next week, including the chance of snow and rain Saturday and Monday, will be less than optimal.
The blossoms tend to endure longest when the weather is sunny and calm. But if it’s windy or precipitating, their petals can blow away or fall off. Temperatures below 27 or 28 degrees for more than a few hours can damage the blossoms.
Last year, abnormally cold weather caused a substantial percentage of the blossoms to turn brown. The mercury dropped as low as 22 degrees when many blossoms were in their vulnerable “puffy white” stage, right before peak bloom.
Already this week, the blossoms have faced challenges because of volatile weather.
The winds howled late Wednesday, gusting to 46 mph at Reagan National Airport, which caused concern that the cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin might sustain damage. But fortunately, the cherry blossoms were in the early stage of bloom, and their petals stayed firmly fastened within their flowers, with the bloom relatively undisturbed.
“The petals are hanging on,” tweeted Michael Stachowicz, horticulturalist at the National Park Service. “Still early in their blooming period so they won’t let go easily.”
If the cherry blossoms were in the late stage of peak bloom, however, their petals would have been scattered to the wind. The wind storm subsided overnight and, by early Thursday morning, only moderate breezes occurred.
At the height of the wind storm Wednesday afternoon, small dust clouds were visible blowing across the Tidal Basin, the cherry trees shook and swayed, and white caps formed on the water. Occasionally, an entire blossom was blown off a tree limb and rolled across the ground, but the blossom break-offs were few in number.
Strong winds at the Tidal Basin on April 4. Small white caps are visible on the Tidal Basin. (Kevin Ambrose)
Now that the blossoms have survived the wind, we’ll have to wait for this weekend to see whether cold and/or snow brings additional threats to the bloom.
Let’s hope we don’t have a repeat of last year. While temperatures may briefly dip to near freezing Saturday and Saturday night, we think it’s unlikely it will be persistently cold enough for significant damage to occur.
Forecasting this year’s peak bloom, given the variable weather, proved to be quite the adventure. Underestimating the potency of the March cold, we initially predicted peak bloom between March 23 and 27 (the National Park Service’s initial prediction was between March 17 and 20). We then revised our peak bloom forecast twice, first to around April 1 (the Park Service revised to March 27 to 31) then to around April 10. The truth ended up right in the middle.
Photographing the blossoms
by Kevin Ambrose
I made two trips to the Tidal Basin to shoot photos and video. The first trip was during the height of a wind storm Wednesday afternoon, and the second trip was at sunrise Thursday morning, when the blossoms were just starting peak bloom. I’ve displayed a few of the photos and a video from the two trips.
During the windy photo shoot Wednesday, I used a high ISO setting on my camera and a fast shutter speed to reduce blurring of the blossoms that were constantly moving. During the sunrise shoot Thursday, the blossoms were still moving with the breeze, so I used a flash to “freeze” their image in the exposure. I still ended up with a few blurry photos, however.