What does the cherry blossom mean to the D.C. region?

What does the cherry blossom mean to the D.C. region?

This year, the Cherry Blossom Festival is online, due to the pandemic. But that hasn’t stopped the excitement behind this year’s bloom. Although they aren’t native to the region, cherry blossoms remain a big part of the District’s culture.

We’re discussing the history and science behind the cherry blossoms, what their significance is and some online festival events you can attend.

Produced by Richard Cunningham


  • Frank Feltens Assistant Curator of Japanese Art at the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery; @FreerSackler
  • Matthew Barker City Arborist for Laguna Beach, Former City Arborist of Alexandria, @CATreeGeek


  • 12:00:17

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast, we hear from Entomologist Mike Raupp, the "Bug Guy," about what to expect from the return of a massive brood of cicadas. But first, the District has a strong bond with cherry blossoms. Usually, around this time of year, the Tidal Basin is filled with tourists and natives taking photos of the blooming flowers. Of course, like almost everything this year, due to the pandemic, the festival has moved online. Today, we're talking about the history of those cherry trees and the District's relationship with the flowers and where you might be able to see some blooms without the crowds. Joining the show today is Matthew Barker. He is City Arborist for Laguna Beach, former City Arborist for Alexandria. Matthew Barker, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:06

    MATTHEW BARKERThank you so much, Kojo, for having me. It's an honor to be here.

  • 12:01:10

    NNAMDIAnd Frank Feltens is an Assistant Curator of Japanese Art at the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Frank Feltens, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:19

    FRANK FELTENSThank you, Kojo. It's great to be here.

  • 12:01:21

    NNAMDIYou, too, can join the conversation. Have any questions or comments for us? The number is 800-433-8850. What are some of your favorite places to find cherry blossoms? 800-433-8850. You can send a tweet @kojoshow or email to kojo@wamu.org. You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. Frank Feltens, before we start talking about cherry blossoms, how has the gallery been faring during this pandemic?

  • 12:01:51

    FELTENSI think we all can agree that our lives really fundamentally changed. And I think all of my colleagues, me included, would love to be back at the museum and look at art pieces and in person. But since that is not possible, I think what we did at the museum is we really, you know, went above and beyond in our efforts, and among all the staff, the entire -- all my colleagues everybody included to create an incredibly, you know, robust online program for the museum, covering all areas and bringing in not just curators, but staff from all backgrounds and from all departments in the museum. So, this is, I think, a great experience that we take away from the pandemic, a positive side of being closed for such a long time. There's always a silver lining.

  • 12:02:46

    NNAMDICan you provide some specifics about how you've been keeping engaged? What kinds of programs?

  • 12:02:53

    FELTENSSo, I mean, we have created a number of very popular meditation programs, for example. So, we have weekly meditations, and on Fridays, we use artworks as a source of reference, as a focal point for these meditation sessions. We also created a series called "Objects We Love," where staff members, curators, conservators, archivists and others speak about their favorite works. So, all in all, including also live programs, we have really our website and YouTube Channel is full of wonderful offerings.

  • 12:03:31

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number. Do the region's cherry blossoms hold any special significance for you? Tell us, 800-433-8850. Matthew Barker, what do you say when people refer to cherry blossom trees?

  • 12:03:46

    BARKERWell, Kojo, thank you for that. That's a great question. So, there's two main types of cherry blossom trees, but they're both the same species. So, the Yoshino and the Kwanzan cherries are the two most celebrating cherry blossom trees in the District. And that's a little bit of a misnomer, because it's really celebrating the flowers as a blossom. But, really, most trees that we interact with in a daily basis do have a blossom. So, even oak trees while not very conspicuous and showy of a display as the cherry trees that we celebrate so highly in the District, do have blossoms themselves. So, the two main types of cherry trees that we celebrate, the Yoshino and the Kwanzan cherries, are both the same species, but two distinct cultivars. They're both prunus subhirtela cherry trees, and the Yoshino being a distinct cultivar, bread for its slightly almond-scented white flowers. And the Kwanzan trees are a distinct cultivar, having a heartier, fleshier truer pink flower that has a little bit more rose-scented.

  • 12:04:51

    NNAMDIFrank Feltens, these distinctive cherry trees around the Tidal Basin are so associated with the District, that they are often portrayed on postcards and t-shirts, and are as much a symbol of D.C. as the Washington Monument. But they are, in fact, not native. Frank, what's the history of cherry blossoms in the District?

  • 12:05:10

    FELTENSRight, I mean, the cherry trees do come from Japan. And in 1902 and 1912, the Japanese government -- as a matter of fact, facilitated through the mayor of Tokyo, gifted around 3,000 cherry trees to the city of Washington, and by extension to the United States, as a gesture of bilateral understanding and collaboration. And I think with that act, these cultural symbol of Japan made its home in Washington, and really is a perpetual reminder of the friendship between U.S. and Japan, and also of the wonderful landmark of D.C.

  • 12:05:50

    NNAMDIWhat is the significance of the cherry blossom within the Japanese culture?

  • 12:05:56

    FELTENSThe cherry blossoms can -- their significance in Japanese culture cannot be overstated. It's hard to pinpoint a very early source, but the blossoms are already appearing in 8th century poetic anthology called "The Manyoshu," and then from the 16th century onward, what is from the late 16th century, what is Japans early modern age, picnicking became popular sort of amongst all classes of society gazing upon the cherry trees and really enjoying yourself under them. And simply because we can't do this at this time and in our secluded lives in the pandemic, what we are trying to do at the museum in this season is bring the cherry blossoms to people's homes through an online portal in our website.

  • 12:06:46

    NNAMDITell us a little more about how the cherry blossom season is celebrated in Japan.

  • 12:06:51

    FELTENSIn Japan, I think -- of course, in non-pandemic times, what you would do nowadays, you would go to the 100-yen store or to a dollar store, get yourself a blue tarp. Put it out under a scenic spot underneath the cherry trees and have your friends join you, drink, enjoy the beauty of the blossoms. Enjoy each other's company. That is the type of thing that people would do.

  • 12:07:18

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join the conversation. How are you planning to celebrate the Cherry Blossom Festival this year? Has the pandemic changed how you plan to see the cherry blossoms? 800-433-8850. Here's Catherine, in Washington D.C. Catherine, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:07:38

    CATHERINEHi, Kojo. I'm so honored to be on your show today. I'm with the trust for the National Mall. And we're just -- this is such a memorable and a great feeling time, as spring starts to arrive. Official spring is on the 20th. And so, we're partners with the National Cherry Blossom Festival around our annual bloom cam. So, what's really special this year is just we're continuing -- as we're continuing with, you know, discouraging people from coming down to the cherry blossom, people can view the blossoms live, 24-7, through bloom cams. So, you can view the blooms at the Trust for the National Mall's website, which is nationalmall.org/bloomcam. You can also check out bloom watch on the Cherry Blossom Festival. And you can also learn on our website about how the National Park Service arborists are taking care of the trees year around to make sure that they're beautiful, every single year.

  • 12:08:40

    CATHERINESo, I just was excited that you were doing this segment. And wanted to share with your listeners that there are opportunities to view the camera year round, and they will be live again on Thursday.

  • 12:08:50

    NNAMDIWe're excited that you shared that with us, Catherine. Thank you for your call. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850 if you have a question or comment about the cherry blossoms. Frank Feltens, we can't have the usual Cherry Blossom Festival this year, of course, because it involves crowds. Can you tell us about the series of alternative events and activities the Freer Gallery will be holding?

  • 12:09:12

    FELTENSYes, of course. Sure. I mean, we're very mindful of everybody's safety and really want to discourage people to congregate on the National Mall. So, as an alternative, we created this online portal, cherry blossom-themed, on our website, asia.si.edu, which is really a one-stop shop kind of venue where you have offerings from a gallery tour of our current Hokusai exhibition, Hokusai are known for the great wave. Everybody probably knows that print. But also customized tours by our wonderful docents, live tours that take you through cherry blossom-themed works in our collection, which is really a unique opportunity. And in addition to that, we have all kinds of other programs on this portal, such as our Objects We Love series, where some highlight objects are being discussed by our staff. But also links to meditation sessions and others.

  • 12:10:14

    FELTENSSo, I really encourage everybody to log on.

  • 12:10:15

    NNAMDITell us about some of the things the docents will be showing us. Can you tell us about some of the cherry blossom-themed art the Freer Gallery is showing?

  • 12:10:24

    FELTENSYeah. That's a wonderful question. And, of course, I'm never growing tired of talking about anything especially Japanese. And, in this case, just to get back the name Hokusai, we have a wonderful pair of folding screens, sort of large-format works that depict a cherry blossom picnic. And I especially love that work, because on one screen, on the right side, you have this quaint gathering of ladies and gentlemen sort of very refined, drinking Saki and behaving themselves. And on the left side of the screen underneath another pair of cherry blossoms, you have a raucous crowd that's already very much into the liquor, so to speak, and is dancing around. So, this is a nice interplay.

  • 12:11:08

    NNAMDIMatthew Barker, I want to talk about the flowers themselves. What is the blooming process like?

  • 12:11:15

    BARKERThat's a great question, Kojo. So, the blooming process is really distinct to either the Yoshino cultivar or the Kwanzan cultivar. The Yoshino variety have a much more delicate bloom. They last for a shorter while and, you know, a little bit of a light rain or even a light wind will send the blooms off of the cherry trees. And they bloom a lot earlier, in about late March, very early April, and for just that short time. They're kind of the harbinger of spring to come, versus the Kwanzan trees, like I said, have a heartier, fleshier pink flower. And they bloom much later, in mid to late-April, and they stick around for a little bit longer. And, you know, they're really responsible for a lot of the artwork that Mr. Feltens was talking about, where you see just sort of this rain of pink soft petals, you know, being captured by people enjoying them underneath their vase-like or their umbrella-shaped canopy. So, that's how they're distinct.

  • 12:12:28

    NNAMDIIn the minute or so we have left in this segment, has climate change had an effect on D.C.'s cherry blossoms?

  • 12:12:34

    BARKEROh, they certainly have. And that's something that's becoming ever more increasingly present in people's day-to-day lives. And when it touches something so culturally distinct, like the Cherry Blossom Festival, you're going to see that more and more. The blooms are going to be sort of tricked into coming out earlier, because they take their cues from the environment around them. So, if you get these warm spells early in the year, February or March, they can be environmentally tricked into coming out, and then maybe get hit with a late frost, a late snowstorm, which can really damage the festival and the optics of the trees.

  • 12:13:08

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation. If you have called, stay on the line. If you'd like to call it's 800-433-8850. How are you planning to celebrate the Cherry Blossom Festival this year? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:14:07

    NNAMDIWelcome back to this conversation about D.C.'s cherry blossoms. We're talking with Frank Feltens, Assistant Curator of Japanese Art at the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, and Matthew Barker, City Arborist for Laguna Beach, former City Arborist of Alexandria. Matthew Barker, are there long-term effects on the region's cherry blossoms from climate change?

  • 12:14:30

    BARKERThat's a great question. So, these trees are very widely adaptable to a number of climate conditions. And I certainly wouldn't be worried in the near term about the effects of climate change on the trees' ability to withstand climate conditions. Certainly, like I said, that the year-to-year display of the blooms can be damaged or disrupted by climate change as we continue to see those unpredictable climate patterns. But, you know, I wouldn't be worried about their long-term ability to at least, you know, adapt to climate conditions.

  • 12:15:07

    NNAMDIHere is Phillip in Silver Spring, Maryland. Phillip, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:15:11

    PHILLIPYeah, a couple of related questions. How much is done in turn of fertilizing, aerating, mitigating, trampling of the roots to the trees, annually?

  • 12:15:26

    NNAMDIMatthew Barker?

  • 12:15:28

    BARKERWell, in my time that I worked in the D.C. area for the city of Alexandria and also for the Architect of the Capitol grounds as an arborist, I never worked for the trees in the National Park Service. But those -- the root systems of these trees certainly undergo a high degree of compaction, which really isn't favorable for any tree species. But I know that the arborists at the National Park Service do a tremendous job. We've partnered with them before, and they do a tremendous job taking care of these trees and closely monitoring their health and providing treatment through plant healthcare, pruning and then removal and replacement when necessary. But I don't believe that they do a whole lot of fertilizing. You know, the soil type in our area, clay, primarily clay, is the most nutrient dense of all soil types. It's primary deficiency is compaction, because the soil particles are so small. But nutrient deficiency certainly is not a problem in our area.

  • 12:16:28

    BARKERThank you very much for your call, Phillip. Now on to Raymond, in Silver Spring. Raymond, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:16:34

    RAYMONDThanks for having me, Kojo. My question is about mostly kids trying to like climb on the trees and how that really affects their perennial bloom. I know that everybody likes to get the best Instagram photo that they can by pulling the branch down towards them or even taking off a small branch with some flowers on it. Could you explain how that really like affects their future bloom cycle?

  • 12:16:59

    NNAMDIWell, allow me to add Karen's email to that. Karen says: As a long time D.C. area resident, I adore the beauty and significance of the iconic blooms. However, I have avoided the city the past few years, as throngs of tourists descend and oftentimes are so disrespectful of the trees, picking blossoms to wear on their hair, tearing branches to carry around and climbing the trees to take photos. Then they leave expecting the trees to be there year after year, never considering the damage imparted to the trees. I no longer venture into town, preferring to find the numerous trees in other parts of the world. We need a conservation corps to remind visitors of their responsibility to respect these treasures. Matthew Barker, what do you say to that?

  • 12:17:41

    BARKERWell, that's a very serious concern. You know, certainly only trained arborists should be climbing into the crowns of these trees. But, when you have hordes of people coming in and taking branches off or flowers off, that certainly does do some measure of damage to the trees. You know, I'm reminded of the leave no trace principle, where you take nothing but photographs and leave nothing but footprints. That's something I think we could certainly all take a lesson for when we visit not only natural areas, but also places of natural beauty.

  • 12:18:16

    NNAMDIHere now is Liz in Annandale, Virginia. Liz, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:18:21

    LIZThank you. I wanted to make people aware of the Petal Porch Parade, where people throughout the Metro area are decorating their front yards in honor of the Cherry Blossom Festival. And instead of having the regular parade, people can drive through and look at the sort of tributes to the festival. I'm going to be doing something here in Annandale, basically, the hares hootenanny. So, if you want to see hares with banjos, that's where to do it.

  • 12:18:53

    NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that with us, Liz. Frank Feltens, why did you choose to hold the exhibit on cherry blossoms?

  • 12:19:01

    FELTENSWe decided to do this simply to create an alternative for people to go outside and, you know, to go onto The Mall and see the trees in person and endanger themselves and others. And I think, also, I mean, in Japanese culture, because cherry trees have such a long standing history and painting prints and other artworks, that there's also been sort of this mediated experience that was part of experiencing the cherry blossoms. I mean, you just don't go outside in the spring to see them. But you bring them to your home. So, in that sense, I mean, this online portal that we created, or this digital experience, is not all that different from how artwork sort of brought cherry blossoms to people's homes, really.

  • 12:19:49

    NNAMDIKen emails: I grew up around fruit trees and blossoms were always followed by fruit. Why don't we get a lot of cherries, Matthew Barker?

  • 12:19:59

    BARKERWell, that's a great question. So, these two specific cultivars, the Yoshino and the Kwanzan, like other ornamental flowering trees that we plant in our landscapes, while they do produce a fruit, they're not so much bred for -- selectively bred over generations for producing the best tasting, the largest fruit that we can eat. That sort of thing is left to more -- you know, commercial farms, usually. You can buy fruit trees that are selectively bred that you can plant in your landscape. But they don't produce the same dramatic, showy display that these trees have been selectively bread for. Much like a crab apple tree, which puts on a very nice spring display is a different cultivar of the malus genus than the fruiting apple tree, and much like the fruiting pear, and people might be familiar, unfortunately, with the flowering Bradford pears in our area.

  • 12:20:51

    NNAMDIHere now is Sylvie in Annapolis, Maryland. Sylvie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:20:58

    SYLVIEHi, Kojo. Thanks for having me. I seem to recall back in sometime near 1985, something happened to the cherry trees where they all got sick, and they were in danger of dying out. I'd like to know what happened to them, and what was the mitigating factor to solve that problem?

  • 12:21:22

    NNAMDIMatthew Barker, do you know?

  • 12:21:25

    BARKERThat is something that I haven't heard about before. It was certainly quite a while ago. But, you know, all sorts of trees are under threat constantly by either invasive pests that come over from different parts of the world or, you know, a surge in maybe fungal infections. You know, sounds like some trained arborists at the time were able to diagnose and treat these trees and make sure that they were able to carry on and be enjoyed by lots of people. But, you know, I'm unsure of the specifics of that caller's question.

  • 12:21:55

    NNAMDIHere is Diane in Laurel, Maryland. Diane, your turn.

  • 12:22:00

    DIANEHi, Kojo. I just wanted to make a comment that these trees give off -- for me, anyway -- such natural serenity and peace whenever you see them. And it's such a wonderful gift, not only to us from the Japanese people, but it makes us want to culturally explore the culture and more of the beauties that they have to offer, which is numerous. But I'm just thankful that we have them here and we're able to enjoy them.

  • 12:22:35

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Stella emails: What a cheering topic today. Count me in for being a fan of the cherry blossoms. I like to know that one of the most important cherry blossom species in our area is the native black cherry and its relatives. Not only is it beautiful, but it provides sustenance to over 400 species of wildlife, including birds insects and mammals. The beautiful lunar moth for example, makes its home in our native tree. Cherry trees aren't native to the region. Matthew Barker, do their presence present any harm to the region's ecology? Stella seems to feel they actually help a lot.

  • 12:23:16

    BARKERYeah, so the recent email that you just read was talking about the native hardwood cherry, the prunus serotina, sometimes called wild cherry or black cherry, forest cherry, that is a native hardwood species and a very important hardwood species to the forest and the urban forest. They do flower, just not as dramatic and showy as these native to Japanese cultivars that we celebrate so highly. But, yeah, so they don't present an overall danger to the ecology of our area. They are not native, but there's a different between a plant or a tree being not native, but also doing measurable harm in becoming invasive.

  • 12:23:54

    NNAMDIGot it. Matthew Barker is City Arborist for Laguna Beach, former City Arborist of Alexandria. Frank Feltens is Assistant Curator of Japanese Art at the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Thank you both for joining us. Next up, entomologist Mike Raupp on the return of a massive brood of cicadas. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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