News & Politics

The Secret Behind Forecasting When DC’s Cherry Blossoms Will Hit Peak Bloom

The National Park Service's top tree-man dishes.

Photograph of Stachowicz by Jeff Elkins

Read more from our Ultimate Guide to Cherry Blossoms here

Horticulturist Michael Stachowicz manages all 3,750 cherry trees in the National Memorial Parks—and yes, he’s in charge of pinpointing the date when the blossoms are at peak pretty.

Do you have a favorite varietal?

The Okame tree, which there are only a couple of in the park. They bloom two or three weeks in advance of the others, and they’re a much pinker bloom than the Yoshino, the most common varietal, which is more white than anything.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve seen during the Cherry Blossom Festival?

The number of people taking pictures in their wedding attire—I think that’s always a funny thing to see. You know damn well they weren’t just married. It’s usually at 6 or 7 in the morning that they show up. They just want that picture.

How do you calculate peak bloom?

We use a model. You see how cold the temperatures are in the fall when the trees go dormant. Then as the temperatures start rising, the trees start to wake up and you start counting the heating-degree days, and you know how many it will take to get to full bloom. Basically, if you tell me what the weather is going to be, I can tell you when they’re going to bloom. That part’s easy. The hard part is determining the weather. Last year, we had predicted an early bloom, and that’s the way it was going—until we got that cold front. I had to say, “Hey, guys. This is not going to happen. This weather forecast is going to totally change the bloom.” As I was driving home that day, it was on the radio how people needed to change their plans because the Park Service had changed their forecast. I was like, “Holy cow.”

Is it an equation or more subjective?

It’s a straight equation.

That must take some of the pressure off.

It does help. They used to make the predictions a little more mystical, but I’ve tried to show that it’s science. The Park Service is a science-based organization.

On that note, do you think climate change has affected the bloom dates at all?

I’m not in a position to answer that.

So what don’t people know about the trees?

You don’t have to be at the Tidal Basin at complete full bloom. There is a big, long blooming period. I actually think the five days beforehand, when you have the buds coming out and they’re pinkish, is really nice.

Have you been to the cherry-blossom pop-up bar?

We stuck our head in, and I really wanted to go in, but the line was way too long and ridiculous.

You must have your own rituals for cherry-blossom season. What do you do?

Sorry, but I spend most of my time just a complete nervous wreck.

This article appears in the April 2018 issue of Washingtonian.

Assistant Editor

Hayley is an Associate Editor at Washingtonian Weddings. Previously she was the the Style Editor at The Local Palate, a Southern food culture magazine based out of Charleston, South Carolina. You can follow her on instagram @wandertaste.