The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Stumpy steals the hearts of thousands at the Tidal Basin

The struggling cherry tree attracted crowds last week and has inspired many with its resilience

Stumpy, a struggling cherry tree on the Tidal Basin's south bank, was in full bloom on March 25. (Kevin Ambrose/FTWP)
3 min

Stumpy is a hollow, stump-shaped cherry tree located on the south bank of the Tidal Basin in Washington. It has a strip of bark on one side that transports nutrients to a few small branches sprouting from its top.

Throughout the year, Stumpy’s roots are flooded with brackish water from flooding tides of the Potomac River, which is harmful to its health. Yet, the tree survives year after year, bursting with blossoms each spring.

The name Stumpy was given to the cherry tree in 2020 after a Reddit user posted that the tree was as dead as his love life. Since that post, the tree’s popularity has grown each year. Stumpy’s resilience is celebrated.

Last Saturday, while the cherry trees at the Tidal Basin were in peak bloom, Stumpy attracted a crowd. The little tree displayed blossoms as beautiful as the much larger and healthier cherry trees on higher ground.

I wanted a photo of Stumpy in bloom, so I waited in line to photograph the tree. I’ve photographed cherry trees at the Tidal Basin for 20 years, and I’ve never seen one tree garner so much attention.

“Stumpy is such a unique and well-loved tree because it’s small and deals with Tidal Basin flooding daily,” said Dave Lyons, a D.C.-area photographer. “Yet it’s full of beautiful cherry blossoms. Everyone cheers for the little guy!”

Surprisingly, Stumpy looks better this year than in previous years. Its largest branch has now grown big enough to frame the Washington Monument with blossoms when viewed from a low angle. The low angle is necessary because Stumpy is short.

This year’s long peak bloom period — because of a lack of strong winds and extreme temperatures — allowed visitors to enjoy Stumpy’s blossoms for more than a week. Saturday’s strong winds will bring the bloom to a sudden end.

I first started photographing Stumpy in 2017, before the tree was named. At the time, I thought the tree appeared almost dead. However, as the years have passed, I’ve been surprised that it continues to live and thrive.

But Stumpy’s future is bleak. The water level of the Tidal Basin continues to rise, and the south bank of the Tidal Basin is sinking.

“While Stumpy is the embodiment of resilience and inspires us all, the tree is also a symbol of the many challenges faced by the iconic cherry trees on the Tidal Basin, including the changing climate.” said Catherine Townsend, president and chief executive of the Trust for the National Mall in an email. “People take for granted that the trees will bloom for the next generation.”

The Trust for the National Mall is the nonprofit partner of the National Park Service on the National Mall. Its Adopt a Cherry Tree program invites the public and the 1.5 million who visit the trees each year to financially support the trees.

So, for now, we need to appreciate every year that Stumpy is with us, sprouting blossoms and leaves while getting flooded with each high tide. I speak for many when I say, “Go, Stumpy!”