Cherry blossom buds move into the puffy stage at the Tidal Basin on Saturday. (George Jiang/Flickr)

Washington’s famous cherry blossoms are opening and peak bloom is expected by the weekend, maybe sooner. This is likely to be among the top 10, if not top 5, earliest peak blooms on record thanks to an exceptionally mild late winter and early spring.

On Monday the National Park Service announced the blossom buds reached their next to last stage (5 out of 6), known as “puffy white.” In this stage, the buds are officially flowering and, with each passing day, opening a little more.

This stage followed the peduncle elongation stage (4 out of 6), reached Thursday, in which the stalks bearing the blossom buds extended and the flowers became visible.

Once the puffy white stage is reached, the blossoms become a spectacle, drawing hordes of visitors to the Tidal Basin. But much smaller crowds are expected this year, due to the coronavirus crisis.

The National Cherry Blossom Festival runs from March 20 to April 12, but several events have been canceled, including the Cherry Blossom Parade, previously scheduled for April 4.

On average, the blossoms reach peak bloom, the final stage, within three to five days of hitting the current puffy white stage. During unusually warm weather, this transition can be as little as two days and can take up to a week in cooler weather.

This week, temperatures are forecast to be warmer than average (in the mid-to-upper 50s), with highs between 60 to 65 Tuesday and Wednesday, into the 70s on Thursday, and perhaps hitting 80 by Friday. Given these mild to warm temperatures, we could see the Park Service announcing peak bloom as early as Friday (March 20) and would be surprised if it didn’t happen by Sunday (March 22), even as temperatures drop.

High and low temperature forecasts averaged from a group of computer models for the next 10 days in Washington. (WeatherBell)

If peak bloom occurs on March 20, it would be the earliest since 2012 (when it also occurred on March 20) and tied for the third earliest on record. In the Park Service’s 99-year record dating to 1921, the only years with earlier bloom dates were 1990 (March 15) and 2000 (March 17).

By definition, peak bloom occurs when 70 percent of the cherry trees are flowering and have transitioned from puffy white to pink as the flower petals open.

The Capital Weather Gang had predicted peak bloom to occur between March 20 and 24 (a revision from an initial forecast of March 25 to 29). The National Park Service’s forecast is between March 21 and 24 (a revision from an initial forecast of March 27 to 30).

Once peak bloom is reached, the blossom petals can remain for a week or so if it’s dry and winds are light. But in some years, petals have fallen off sooner because of wind, rain or frost.

The extended outlook for the blossoms once they reach peak bloom this year is mixed. Windy conditions Friday into Saturday may blow off some petals, but viewing through the weekend should remain good even as temperatures fall. Chilly weather, as long as it’s not too cold (temperatures below 28 degrees can damage the buds), can help the blossoms linger.

The next chance of rain, which could cause petals to drop, would be Monday or Tuesday next week.