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Washington in bloom

One hundred years since being gifted to the US capital by Japan, Washington's cherry blossom trees have endured even through wartime as a symbol of the countries' friendship.
Last modified: 24 Mar 2012 15:05
Cherry blossoms and Washington's Monument

In Washington DC the official emblem of springtime is the annual Cherry Blossom Festival.

Almost 4,000 cherry trees bloom for just a handful of days each year near the city's famous National Mall.

This year is special as it is exactly 100 years since the trees were given to the city as a sign of friendship by Japan.

In dad's footsteps

Forty-seven-year-old Gilbert Shupe is doing the same job today as his dad did many years ago, nurturing what is one of Washington DC’s greatest treasures - the cherry trees.

"When they first bloom they're pink", he says, but in fact most are an off-white. Apple-white I supposed you could call it.

The cherry blossom trees were a gift from the Japanese in 1912 and today people come from all over the world to see them in bloom.

"I’ve had people that somehow got my number and are calling me from St Louis and other places asking, when are they going to be peaked, so I hope not to screw up their vacations by telling them the wrong day but I do the best I can, ” said Shupe. 

Just to be clear, though, these are not actually fruit bearing cherry trees - these are Japanese Cherry Blossom trees, and most of the trees around the tidal basin are the Yoschino variety.

And, let me just tell you - in the cherry tree world, they are the superstar variety.

Festival time

A five-week cherry blossom festival is a highlight of this time of year in Washington DC but tourists flocking to catch a glimpse of the trees have no time to waste – the blooms only last for around 10 days and one good storm can bring all them down.

"You see that notch, that's how you can tell the difference between a cherry tree and some others."

That's Ann McClellan, she's the author of THE book on Washington's Japanese cherry blossom, titled The Cherry Blossom Festival: Sakura Celebration.

She says the splash of colour of the trees is reminiscent of life's fleeting nature. 

Ann told me that one of the wonderful things about the trees is that the petals fall, they don’t wither. She said it's like that of a Japanese person's life, or maybe all life, "to live your life fully, every minute right up to the end".

Cherry blossoms at war

Ann says during World War II someone vandalised the trees, in protest to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The people of DC were so incensed that they organised an around-the-clock tree watch to stop it happening again. 

Their one concession to the global conflagration was to refer to the trees as "Asian Cherry Blossoms" for the duration of the war and a little bit afterwards.

Friday night cherry

The forecast is none too promising for this weekend (March 24/25) and there's a good chance the blooms will be blown out of the trees.

The problem is the petals are very delicate and even the slightest nudge causes them to drop, so there's a good chance the evening of Friday 23 will be the best viewing day.

And that's why the area is packed right now - many local TV crews are here - as tourists and DC locals make the most of what is a rare annual blessing that binds two nations together and helps to smooth diplomatic sensibilities between Washington and Tokyo.

One hundred years after the first trees arrived from Japan, what was once swamp land in this young country, is now a picture perfect location to enjoy the beauty of the US capital city … but only if you're quick!