It looks as though thick boughs of pink cotton are floating against the blue sky. Circling the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, passersby with smartphones stop to snap the scene as velvety petals drift in the breeze coming off the Potomac River.
It’s springtime in the nation’s capital and the Japanese cherry blossoms are in full bloom.
A symbol of renewal and hope, cherry blossoms herald the arrival of spring. The trees, which reached peak bloom April 5 this year, were gifted to the U.S. in 1912 by Japan, symbolizing friendship. The blooms attract more than 1 million people annually to the D.C. area for the National Cherry Blossom Festival.
So what exactly are these specimens that put the spring-starved in awe?
Cherry blossoms have three main parts — a bud, peduncle and flower — and their life cycle transitions through five stages — green bud, florets, extension of florets, peduncle elongation and puffy white — before reaching full bloom. Once they’ve fully opened, festival attendees have just 10-14 days before the blooms begin to wilt. Climate change has shifted peak bloom dates over the years, making trees flower earlier. But this year, a March cold snap delayed peak bloom by three weeks.
The tree that appears on the Mall is a hybrid version of the most popular variety of cherry blossom, the Somei Yoshino. The number of original cherry blossom trees gifted over a century ago is rapidly depleting, and fewer than 100 of the original 3,000 trees still bloom on the National Mall.
Cherry blossom imposters exist too. Almond, damson, apple, peach, pear and plum blossoms resemble the cherry. The major difference between them is that Japanese cherry blossoms do not produce fruit.
But they can still be eaten! Sakura leaves and blossoms are sold pickled in supermarkets in Japan. Not into pickled flowers? McDonalds in Japan offers a cherry blossom burger on pink bread — a different way to savor the season.