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In Japan, fluffy cherry blossoms stand as symbols and reminders of the fleeting nature of life and beauty. Thanks to their popularity on the Tidal Basin and near the Washington Monument, the blossoms here can sometimes speak more to locals’ fleeting patience with crowds of photograph-loving tourists.
Those hoping to avoid the million people who descend on D.C. during the National Cherry Blossom Festival can take advantage of the lesser-known blossoms around Capitol Hill. Nearly 400 cherry trees pepper the Capitol grounds alone, and many area parks boast more of the flowering trees.
Cherry trees are second only to oak trees on the Capitol grounds. Most are Yoshino cherry trees, though the Capitol does have several of the smaller Kwanzan cherry trees, which flower later in the season.
“They are very popular with tourists and Congressional staff,” Eva Malecki, communications officer for the Architect of the Capitol, said in an email. “You’ll see many people outside at lunchtime enjoying their beauty.”
Most of the trees on the Capitol grounds, and particularly those around the Senate Reflecting Pool, were planted in the 1960s, around the time that Lady Bird Johnson, wife of President Lyndon Johnson, accepted 3,800 American-grown Yoshino cherry trees from the Japanese government.
Three of the Capitol cherry trees, however, likely date back to 1911 and may precede the 1912 gift of 3,020 cherry trees from the people of Japan. But no documentation links the trees, which are clustered on the upper West Front of the Capitol, to the gift from Japan. Their age has been figured based on their size and condition.
“They make a great photograph this time of year because you get the Capitol Dome in the background,” Malecki said.
The Capitol grounds crew is responsible for the care of the trees, which are resilient and low-maintenance. Both varieties do well in Washington, and especially on the quieter Capitol grounds, where fewer tourists climb the trees, remove branches or walk on their roots.
“We have not documented any trends, but from casual observance we have seen the trees on Capitol Hill ... last a bit longer than the ones at the Tidal Basin,” Malecki said.
But even the Capitol can be crowded at the height of the Cherry Blossom Festival. Those hoping to relax amid the cherry blossoms can look elsewhere in the Capitol Hill neighborhood for more peaceful clusters of trees.
The National Japanese American Memorial north of the Capitol boasts a ring of especially fluffy blossoms, the National Arboretum’s 446 acres (3501 New York Ave. NE) feature more than 2,000 cherry trees, and Garfield Park (Third and G streets Southeast) turns pink in the spring with its large, weeping Higan cherry trees.
Closest to the Capitol stands Stanton Park (Maryland and Massachusetts avenues Northeast), with four acres rimmed by Yoshino cherry trees. The parks’ oldest trees have stood there for more than 50 years. All the local parks are much quieter than Hains Point and the Tidal Basin, and they receive far fewer visitors than the more famous locations.
“You’re talking about a whole different
audience,” said Bill Line, a spokesman for the National Park Service. “The number of visitations to the Tidal Basin and to Hains Point really doesn’t compare.”
Like the trees on the Capitol grounds, the trees in the smaller parks are largely safe from problems with climbing tourists and souvenir-seekers who might break branches.
“The trees down there are exposed to more danger,” Line said. “The chances of damage elsewhere are obviously less.”
Despite the risks — and crowds — that D.C.’s more popular trees face, their beauty never fails to impress. With more than 3,750 trees, the Tidal Basin and Hains Point boast the largest concentration of cherry blossoms in America.
“I would still say the Tidal Basin is pretty tops,” Line said. “Especially as the nighttime is coming upon us and the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument light up ... the reflection of the cherry trees on the water is pretty hard to beat.”