Waiting for Peak Bloom

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2012 peak bloomIt was a long winter in North America.  The kind of winter where you think, well, that must have been the last snow storm, and then it snows three more times. It seemed like this might be the year when, Narnia-style, winter never ends.

Here in Washington, we gauge spring by the cherry trees. The peak bloom for the most famous variety, the Yoshino cherries, is short; you can pin it to one day. The National Park Service defines it as the day when 70 percent of the trees are blooming. It’s been as early as March 15, in 1990. After the cold winter of 1958, the Yoshino didn’t peak until April 18.

This year’s peak is supposed to fall sometime between now and Saturday. The Park Service meticulously tracks the Yoshino blossoms in a chart on the Cherry Blossom Festival website. Every phase has a delightfully specific name. Green buds appeared March 16. “Florets visible”–March 23. The florets extended March 31, the day after the last snowfall. “Peduncle elongation” hit last Friday—a sign that peak bloom is 6-10 days. Monday the buds got to the “puffy white” stage.

Peak Bloom is coming soon.

The original cherry trees were a gift from Japan in 1912. Over the years, the trees and their cuttings have flowed back and forth across the Pacific. The war was hard on the grove near Tokyo that had been the source for our original trees; in the 1950s, the Park Service sent branches over for grafting. Japan gave us more trees in the 1960s. In the 1980s, Japanese horticulturalists collected cuttings from the trees at the Tidal Basin. Back and forth the beautiful cuttings go.

Most of the trees are around the Tidal Basin, a round pool filled with Potomac River water, where ospreys fish and gulls eye the trash cans.

springing from the trunkFrom far away, they hover at the edge of the Tidal Basin like a pinkish-white cloud. Walk closer and the aged, nobbly trunks show, dark beneath the petal explosion. Most flowers grow in a halo around the branches; others spring straight from the trunks. Up close, each flower is a gem, its five papery petals around a cluster of white stamens tipped with orange, pollen-laden anthers.

A few days before and after the peak, the trees are also very pretty. Wednesday afternoon, the webcam suggested they were already looking good. Soon after, the delicate petals start to fall. Bits of green show as the leaves emerge. But right on peak, all you see is the riot of white and pink flowers above brown-gray bark.

It’s a fleeting moment and a perfect one, all these human-bred plants putting on a show for us. The hard-to-predict timing makes the cherry blossoms sort of an odd tourist attraction. It would be tricky to buy a plane ticket for just the right time; you could be off by weeks. But, for those of us who live here, their emergence is a gift. This year, when it sometimes seemed like spring would never come, we’re ready.

Photos: Helen Fields, March 19, 2012

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