Here Comes Cherry Blossom Season

Japan: It’s cherry blossom time—in Japan and at other northern latitudes where the snowy-flowered plants are cultivated. The renowned trees are under close scrutiny in Tokyo and in Washington, D.C., where bloom experts are keeping a close eye on the genus Prunus right now.

In Japan, Eishin Murakata has a pleasant, relaxing job. In springtime, he strolls every day to the same cherry tree in central Tokyo and gazes at the boughs. When he spots a full bud on the verge of blossoming, he snaps a photograph.
But Murakata is also on edge. An employee of Japan’s Meteorological Agency, his annual quest is to determine the official opening of Tokyo’s hallowed cherry blossom season — and this year the competition is closing in.

“I have to look very carefully so I won’t miss anything,” he said one recent afternoon as he examined the agency’s main benchmark tree at a Tokyo shrine. “Our mission is so important I don’t have time to enjoy the flowers when we spot them.”

The cherry blossom is the ultimate emblem of Japanese culture. Delicate, elegant and ephemeral, the pink flowers have inspired poets, philosophers and even soldiers for centuries — and served as an aesthetic pretext for all-out parties under the trees.

So it’s easy to imagine the outrage among the super-punctual Japanese last year when the Meteorological Agency predicted the blossoms would open four days earlier than they actually did — triggering a wave of angry calls for greater accuracy.
The foul-up by the agency — the long established standard-bearer for forecasts of the cherry blossom “front” as it moves up the archipelago — has brought upstart weather services to the fore in a heated competition for the most accurate predictions.

“Who will get the right answer?” nationwide newspaper Yomiuri asked in March in a front-page article, comparing two conflicting forecasts. “Soon we’ll find out.”

Washington, D.C.:

Delicate yet showy, Washington, D.C.’s cherry trees are usually in high bloom by early April. The mayor of Tokyo gave 3,000 trees to the U.S. capitol in 1912. These specimens are putting their show on by the Potomac River.

The calls begin for Robert DeFeo on the first warm day in January. When will the cherry blossoms be at their glorious best?

It’s DeFeo’s job to know. He’s the National Park Service’s chief horticulturist for the Washington, D.C., region, and the nation’s capital is home to what is probably the biggest cherry blossom celebration outside Japan. It runs from March 25 through April 9.

There’s a lot hanging on DeFeo’s prediction. Festival goers time their visits to when the blossoms around the city’s Tidal Basin are most stunning. Restaurants offer cherry-themed meals and drinks; hotels have special packages. They want to hear that the peak will be on a weekend, when more people can come out.

The blossom period is “short but sweet,’’ said the 50-year- old DeFeo, who isn’t ready to give his prediction of the peak—when at least 70 percent of the trees will be in full bloom—just yet. Maybe later.

This all goes back to 1912, when the mayor of Tokyo gave Washington 3,000 cherry trees, mostly of the Yoshino variety, as a symbol of “the continued close relationship’’ between the countries, according to the festival’s Web site. The city now has 3,750 cherry trees, including 125 of the originals, the park service’s DeFeo says. The festival itself began in 1935 and became a two-week event in 1994.

St. Louis:

The cherries are just about ready to burst into color. Now is the best time to purchase a cherry tree and plant it in your yard. Have your own "Cherry Blossom Festival".