There are several stages to the bloom of a cherry blossom tree, but the whole process is a constant state of transition and relatively brief. Once the flowers come out they typically last a week or two. Precisely how long the flowers stay out varies depending heavily on the weather. In hot, rainy, windy, and stormy weather they'll go more quickly. In cool, calm, and dry conditions they hang around longer.
I get a lot of questions about how long DC's cherry blossoms last and whether there'll be anything to see on such-and-such date. So I've put together a photographic timeline of photos from previous years that illustrates the progression from about a week before the peak bloom to about a week after. The whole process is a transition, and it changes day to day.
There are some things to bear in mind in looking at this timeline of the bloom of a cherry blossom tree.
Firstly, these are not hard and fast rules. The trees will do as they please, and the blossoms react to the weather. There can very easily be variations either way by a day or two or more. So when it comes to predicting what will happen, the schedule below should be read with an implicit "approximately." And to give some idea of the variation we might see, in 2006 the bloom lasted a weekend; in 2016 it lasted about a week.
Secondly, the times here are relative to peak bloom. That's the day when the NPS arborists look closely at the trees and judge that 70 percent of the blossoms have opened. We won't know exactly when the peak bloom day is until it happens. And peak bloom is a specific day, so when you see forecast ranges like April 11-14, it means that the peak bloom date is expected to fall on one day in that range. What it doesn't mean is that the peak bloom lasts for the entire period from April 11 to 14. You can find out much more in my post about what peak bloom means and why it matters. And you can find the latest 2017 peak bloom forecasts here.
Thirdly, while it's remarkable how the trees bloom at roughly the same time, not every tree blooms at precisely the same time. One tree might start blooming while the one right next to it is still several days away. There can even be variations on different branches of the same tree. The process will start with some scattered trees getting a jump on the others. So even a week before it's quite possible you might find some scattered trees starting to bloom. The process then accelerates as more and more trees join in. After the peak bloom, there are inevitably later bloomers that hang around a little longer than the others, but again, you might have to go hunting for them and their numbers will diminish the further from peak bloom we get. The blooming period can last a couple of weeks, or it can last just over a week.
The photos below were all taken in the past few years. As you can see, there's some variation from year to year, but they should provide some idea of what to expect before, during, and after peak bloom.
Timelapse of Yoshino Japanese Cherry Blossoms Blooming
To give you an idea of what the process looks like speeded up many, many times, here's a timelapse I shot of the flowers blooming. It captures about five days or so, through the peduncle elongation, puffy white, and peak bloom stages.
1 Week Before
A week before the peak bloom, some scattered trees will likely start blooming. But it probably won't be many and you'll have to go looking for them. There's one tree that reliably blooms about a week ahead of the others. Its known as the indicator tree--here's how to find it. During this period, some of the other flowering trees will be coming out, such as the tulip magnolias and some of the other early flowering fruit blossoms.
5 to 3 Days Before
During the period about 3 to 5 days before the peak bloom, it becomes much easier to find trees that have started to bloom, with more and more opening each day. But most of the trees are just starting to pop.
2 Days Before to 2 Days After
From about 2 days before peak bloom to 2 days after is for all intents and purposes full bloom. It's prime viewing time and the closest thing to a safe zone. The flowers start white and gradually turn pink. At the start of this period, not all the flowers will have opened yet.
The peak bloom day is when 70 percent of the flowers are determined to have opened. By the end of the period, the trees that bloomed early will have started to drop some petals.
3 to 5 Days After
Roughly three to four days after the peak bloom date is the pivot point when the trees will go pretty quickly from what is essentially full bloom to the petals dropping off and getting replaced by green leaves. Precisely when it happens depends, as usual, on the weather. Storms, wind, rain, and high temperatures can all accelerate the process.
In a good year, the flowers can be looking absolutely splendid 3 days after the peak bloom. In other years they're well on their way out. So this period can be touch-and-go insofar as what you're likely to see.
6-7 Days After
By now most of the trees will be probably done, especially if there's been much in the way of wind or rain. But there is some variation from year to year, and it is possible for there still to be plenty of blossoms to see even 6-7 days after peak bloom (as there was in 2015).
By now the ground is likely covered in pink petals, and the flowers are being replaced by green leaves.
Cherry Blossom Visitor Guides
Planning on visiting DC to see the cherry blossoms? The uncertainty with predicting when the bloom will take place certainly makes things hard, but I've put together some information to help you make an educated guess to maximize your chances.
And if you're coming into town for the events of the cherry blossom festival or just for the flowers, I've also put together some ideas on where to stay and how to get to the cherry blossoms once you're here.
Washington DC Visitor Guides
If you're coming in from out of town, here are some useful travel guidebooks that can help you make the most of your visit. Because as stunning as the cherry blossoms are, there's an awful lot more to do and see in DC.
These are some of the most popular ones. Many of these are available as both traditional books and e-books that you can read on your phone or tablet.
- Elise Hartman Ford
- Publisher: FrommerMedia
- Fodor s Washington D C with Mount Vernon Alexandria Annapolis Full color Travel Guide
- Fodor's Travel Guides
- Stephan Van Dam;Illustrator;Editor
- Publisher: VanDam, Inc
- DK Travel
- Publisher: DK Eyewitness Travel
And here are some interesting options for less traditional guidesbooks if you'd like an emphasis on exploring DC on foot or diving into some of the region's very rich history.