Since the introduction from their native Japan in the early 1900s, blossoming cherry trees have proven harbingers of seasonal change in the United States. Bred for blooms and not for fruit, varieties like Yoshino, Kwanzan, and Akebono explode in a showy spectacle of delicate pink and white flowers for around two weeks each year. The downy blooms blanket parks, gardens, and towns in a visual transition away from the harsh chill of winter and toward the growing warmth of longer days.
The tradition of cherry blossom festivals in the U.S. dates to 1935, when the National Cherry Blossom festival began to honor Japan’s 1912 gift of some 3,000 trees. Not only do these celebrations in communities around the country persist as symbols of international peace and friendship, but they also mirror hanami, outdoor fêtes beneath sakura, cherry blossom blooms, which have been held in Japan since the late eighth century. There, the fleeting flowers have long served as spiritual metaphors, and a reminder to live in the present moment. (Embrace spring with pictures of Japan’s cherry blossoms.)
Predicting the bloom
An individual tree's blooms only last around one week, while whole stands bloom and fall in about two. Understanding bloom timing is useful when trying to match a visit or festival to their short-lived, natural beauty. Typically, peak blooms—when 70 percent of flowers in a stand are out in their full, showy glory—arrive in the nation’s capital sometime between the last week of March and the first week of April. In New England, cherry trees bloom some 20 days later, and in southern states—like Georgia, Tennessee, and Texas—a week-and-a-half to two-weeks earlier. More precise predictions must consider year-over-year comparisons of the complex interplay of weather and climate, including factors like cloudy days, rain and snowfall, and temperature.
The National Park Service, tasked with predicting peak bloom in advance of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, says it’s virtually impossible to say with accuracy more than 10 days from the actual event and human-induced climate change can make precise estimates even more challenging. Bart Connors Szczarba, a locally-dubbed “Chief Bloomologist” based in New Haven, Connecticut, notes that, “Until you see green buds, there won’t be blossoms. They fall into a pattern but can bloom out of nowhere!” He adds that cold winters are good for blossoms. “What's bad is warmth followed by snow and freeze, like Washington had last year or the year before.”
Though the National Park Service won’t give their official predictions for 2019 until March 6, you can make your own educated guess by looking at the bloom times in the capitol in years’ past, and by watching the park’s cherry blossom cam.
Washington, D.C. March 20-April 14
Eleven species of flowering cherry tree ring the Tidal Basin fronting the Potomac River in National Capitol Park. Their scenic blooms draw some 1.5 million people during the four-week celebration, which salutes spring and international friendship. In 2019, 40 different events—most free and open to the public—include a kite festival, parade, fireworks, and art installations, while across the capital, schools and neighborhoods plant new trees, and everything from buildings to busses don pastel pink. (The colorful history of Washington’s cherry blossoms.)
Macon, GA. March 22-31
Georgia’s Macon-Bibb county holds the congressional record for the largest concentration of cherry trees in any U.S. county—and boasts nearly a hundred times more than the National Mall. The area celebrates its blossoms for the 38th year in 2019 with plant sales, a parade, concerts, outdoor movies, markets, and quirky competitions like a wiener dog race. The festival culminates with tethered hot air balloon rides and fireworks over downtown.
New Haven, CT. April 28
The city’s 70-odd cherry blossom trees—most planted in 1978—surround a rectangular park in downtown and form a tree tunnel over one block of Hughes Place. A single-day springtime celebration doesn’t always coincide with the best blooms, but it does with the anniversary of city’s founding in 1638, and includes artist and author presentations, international food vendors, a puppet show, and live jazz.
Nashville, TN. April 13
This Southern city celebrates spring and Japanese culture with its 11th annual festival. Around 1,000 cherry trees have been planted in inner-city parks and neighborhoods in the last 10 years, a testament to the power of nature to revitalize. “Nashville is beautiful during cherry blossom blooming time because of all the trees,” says festival organizer Ginger Byrn. “It can often be a wonderful surprise when you round the corner or turn down a street and see all of the beautiful pink blossoms.” Popular festival events include trapeze performances, martial arts demonstrations, anime vendors, and a cosplay contest. New this year: mochi pounding demonstrations and daytime tea ceremonies.
Brooklyn, NY. April 27-28
See full-size and bonsai cherry trees spanning 42 cultivars throughout the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. Different varieties bloom at different times from late March through early May. The single-weekend Sakura Matsuri celebrates Japanese heritage and cherry blossoms and draws tens of thousands of visitors each year— the highest attended event in an American public garden. This year rock and jazz concerts, performance art, and taiko drumming will be held in and around the newly-opened Water Garden, the recently reopened Plant Family Garden, and its Cherry Walk, which has been planted in cherry trees since 1921.
Marshfield, MO. April 25-27
Tiny Marshfield has a population of 7,300 that blooms with its cherry blossoms each April. Instead of a traditional spring or international cultural festival, this cherry blossom shindig is a showcase of Americana and Missouri heritage beneath the town’s beautiful blooms. Native son astronomer Edwin Hubble and other Missouri luminaries, including descendants of former U.S. presidents, are honored in luncheons and at the annual cherry blossom parade.
Dallas, TX. February 23-April 7
The Dallas Arboretum hosts a six-week celebration of spring, featuring concerts, talks, floral arrangement classes, beer and wine pairings, and outdoor picnics. The backdrop is expansive gardens in full vernal splendor: 150 flowering cherry trees, alongside countless other flowers from daffodils to irises to 500,000 tulips. The only parade here is a progression of colorful blooms throughout the season; peak cherry blossoms are expected in mid-March.
Athens, OH. Early April
Ohio University’s 217 cherry trees line the bike path along the Hocking River beyond campus, living gifts from sister institution Chubu University in Japan. Each year, during peak bloom—usually late March to mid-April—the blossoms across from Wren baseball stadium are illuminated for late-night viewing. The Japanese Student Association hosts a Sakura Festival in conjunction with flowering that features presentations and internationally-themed events.
Based in Hawaii, frequent contributor Meghan Miner Murray covers science and travel. Follow her on Twitter @megminer.