For Prince George’s County resident Bridgette Cooper, a trip into the District to see the cherry blossoms at their peak is a regular ritual of springtime.
As the news is announced that the cherry trees are fully in bloom and the throngs head to the city from points close and far to witness the spectacle, she collects her daughters and their friends and heads down to the Tidal Basin. There, she savors the blossoms as she walks beneath the gift first presented to the U.S. by Japan more than 100 years ago.
“They’re just beautiful. I like to go down and see them every year,” Cooper said. “My grandmother took me when I was little. She used to take me to the parade and I just fell in love with going. I wanted to share it with my own daughters.”
Starting in early March, cherry blossom lovers start a sort of vigil, watching for reports from the National Park Service about the progress of the pink and white flowers. For weeks, local residents wait and visitors play a game of cat and mouse, scheduling trips to D.C. that they hope will coincide with the peaking of the blossoms.
“I really look forward to this every year,” said Carol Johnson, the spokesperson for the National Park Service National Mall. “Take advantage of the opportunity and see them while you can, because they aren’t around very long.”
According to Johnson, more than 1 million locals and tourists trek to the National Mall and Tidal Basin each year to view the blossoms. She said her favorite place to view them is the Martin Luther King Memorial.
The blooming of the cherry blossoms, called sakura in Japanese, is celebrated each year with the Cherry Blossom Festival, a series of events that herald the coming of spring. This year’s festival, which started March 20 with an exhibit of Japanese art at the Smithsonian Freer and Sackler Galleries, will end on April 14.
The most popular event of the festival is the Cherry Blossom Parade, scheduled for April 13. The parade, which will move down Constitution Avenue from 7th to 17th streets NW, is free and open to the public, though seats on the grandstand sell for $20 each.
“The parade is so much fun,” said Joe Perkins of Philadelphia, who brought his family to town this week for the peak of the blossoms. “My daughters were fit to be tied waiting for the blossoms to come out this year. They took their time.”
According to the National Park Service, part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, it is prohibited by law to pick the cherry blossoms or climb the trees. The biggest problem is that touching the trees can damage the bark, which makes the trees susceptible to disease, Johnson said.
The cherry trees were first presented to America by the Japanese government in 1910 to commemorate the growing friendship between the two countries. When those trees died, the Japanese gifted more cherry trees in 1912, Johnson said.
Additional trees were given to the United States in 1965 and again in 1999, when they were planted in West Potomac Park, according to the National Park Service website.
Cherry trees have a profound place in Japanese history. In the early 700s, the Japanese custom of hanami, the practice of picnicking under blossoming cherry trees, started. In Japanese art and architecture, cherry blossoms often represent clouds, due to their resemblance to clouds when blooming en masse. The gradual blooming, dazzling beauty and fast death of the blossoms represents mortality and they have become very symbolic in all aspects of Japanese culture, including film, television and literature and even manga (comic books) and anime (cartoons). Cherry blossoms were also used as a patriotic symbol during World War II, sometimes even in propaganda.
Now, the cherry blossoms represent unity between nations. Cherry trees have been donated to several countries by the Japanese, including the Australia, Canada and Germany.
For Cooper, of Prince George’s County, the cherry trees were the perfect gift.
“I just think they’re pretty. I enjoy the view,” she said. “Every time you look at them, it makes you grateful that the Japanese government shared them with us.”