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March 25, 2022

The Tidal Basin isn't the only place to see the cherry blossoms

Spring is one of the busiest tourist seasons in the Washington, D.C. area. Whether you’ve lived here eight months or eight years, you know the cherry blossoms are a big deal here in the Nation’s Capital. Now that the trees have reached peak bloom, you may be planning a trip to enjoy them. 

Did you know? The cherry blossom trees we enjoy today are the product of centuries of friendship and diplomacy between the United States and Japan. According to the National Park Service (who care for the trees and keep us updated on their bloom forecast), the first idea to plant the Japanese-native cherry blossoms was brought to the US in the late 1800s. Diplomat Eliza Scidmore experienced the beauty of the sakura blossoms on a trip to Japan. At the time, Washington, D.C. wasn’t the beautiful city we know today. The Washington Monument had only recently been installed and the National Mall was rather more bare without the gardens and many of the museums we recognize as landmarks now. In fact, the first Smithsonian museum was only just built at the time that Mrs. Scidmore first proposed the idea of planting cherry blossoms to the DC government.

Unfortunately, though she campaigned for over 2 decades to bring cherry blossoms to the Tidal Basin, it wasn’t until the early 1900s when the idea finally picked up some momentum. A scientist called Dr. David Fairchild had also visited Japan and appreciated the beautiful blossoms. Between Dr. Fairchild and Mrs. Scidmore’s efforts, appeals were made to President Taft and First Lady Helen Taft. At the time, the diplomatic relationship between the United States and Japan was rosy and both sides were interested in showing their appreciation for the other. The Japanese government gifted the United States over 5,000 cherry trees of different varieties over the next several years. Those trees were planted all along the Tidal Basin and are the same trees you can visit now!

When we go to see the cherry blossom trees, the experience serves as a beautiful reminder of the power of friendship. When Mrs. Scidmore and Dr. Fairchild were campaigning, the only way Americans could witness cherry blossoms was to travel to the other side of the Earth. Now, we have a grove of our own! In fact, because the cherry trees are indigenous to Japan, any time you see one, it’s likely related to those first gifted trees from the Japanese government. Budding botanists might notice that not all the blossoms are the same, or that some trees bloom earlier than others. This is because of all the different varieties of trees – the initial gift included more than 10!

Before you go… Consider your family’s interests, needs, and time availability. As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, this is one of the busiest times to visit the city. Crowds add a level of excitement to activities, which can make them more fun. However, excitement uses up energy and shorter adventures might ensure the fun is sustainable. It’s a good idea to plan a specific place to go. That way, you can plan transportation accordingly and also think of an activity or goal when you arrive. Observing the blossoms and admiring their beauty may be enough of a goal for grown-ups, but children may need something more concrete. Younger children might enjoy picking up fallen blossoms for observation and comparison. Older children could press some of these, draw them in a sketchbook, or write about their observations.

Of course, be mindful of the time of day you make your visit. Crowds peak around mid-day, and again during the ‘golden hours’ of late afternoon, as the sun starts to dip. If your family are early risers, this is a great time to take advantage of that and maybe take along a breakfast picnic. For families who peak later in the day, consider other places to see cherry blossoms, or appreciate the trees from the car en route to another destination. For example, the Kenwood neighborhood of Chevy Chase is a popular alternative to the Tidal Basin. The neighborhood has one of the largest plantings of cherry trees in the area and shuts down the roads to cars for peak bloom. There are designated areas for parking and many local families enjoy a leisurely walk through the neighborhood. 

Other places to visit include the Smithsonian gardens and the playground at Hains Point. The gardens are planted with all sorts of beautiful blooms, and a car ride to see those would provide good window viewing of the cherry blossoms. The nearest playground to the cherry blossoms is near the Jefferson Memorial (newly scaffolding free!) and provides a good place to play with the trees as a backdrop. 

Finally, while there are a few places that sell snacks and beverages, one of our favorite ways to enjoy the beauty of the cherry blossoms is with a little al fresco dining. You can pack a simple snack or bring a lunch – either way, sitting amongst the trees, with the occasional petals floating on the breeze is an experience you’ll not soon forget. Preparing your picnic can be a fun way to help your child(ren) get excited about the excursion, too. Choose foods the night before, get into it with themed snacks (pink and white fruits, sandwiches cut into flower shapes) and read a book about cherry blossoms together before bed. 

Our city has so much to offer, and we’re fortunate to not need to travel far for these experiences. Take some pictures and you can look back at them as you prepare your visit next year!

Such a great background about the history of the cherry blossoms! Such a comprehensive summary, as well.

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