'It's been a bit of a roller coaster:' Fickle weather to determine fate of DC cherry blossoms

Adriana Navarro

As March beckons forth the warmer weather while looking ahead to spring, cherry blossoms in D.C. have begun the six-stage blooming process. However, one ill-timed chill from the madness of March weather could severely hinder their progress.

"We've had a relatively mild winter, but mild temperature days have been punctuated with a couple few days in a row of fairly frigid and below-average temperatures, so it's been a bit of a roller coaster this year," National Park Service Public Affairs Specialist Mike Litterst told AccuWeather.

The National Mall and Memorial Parks announced the dates for the 2020 National Cherry Blossom Festival, March 20 to April 12, on Wednesday. The national park projected that peak bloom will occur March 27 to March 30 this year.

"It's official! Peak bloom is on the way!!" the park tweeted on Wednesday.

There are six stages to the blooming process from green buds and visible florets to puffy white florets and peak bloom. The blossoms are considered to be at peak bloom when 70% of the Yoshino cherry trees display open blossoms, though that date varies from year to year depending on the weather conditions, according to the National Park Service (NPS).

Cool and calm weather conditions typically lead to a longer blooming period, while rainy and windy weather can endanger the progress of the flowers or even prevent them from blooming. In the past, frost has wiped out about half of the flowers during the fourth stage of blooming.

A few of the Yoshino trees in Washington D.C., reached the first of six stages of blooming by Feb. 28, 2020. This is six days earlier than in 2019. A few other trees were noted to already be blooming. (Twitter/@NationalMallNPS)

Peak bloom usually occurs between the last week of March and the first week of April, though it has happened earlier. In 1990, peak bloom occurred as early as March 15 as a result of extraordinary warm weather.

"The warmer, the faster," Litterst said.

This year has also brought a mild winter to D.C. with a snowfall total this winter only at 0.6 of an inch, a grand departure from their normal of 15.4 inches. Washington's Ronald Reagan National Airport was 4.7 degrees F above normal in the month of February. However, Litterst said he doesn't believe this year will be on par with the 1990 bloom's timing.

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Using the data available from 2004 into 2020, the earliest first stage occurred on Feb.19, 2008, and the flowers reached peak bloom by March 30 as the sixth earliest peak bloom.

This year, the first stage began on Feb. 28 with green buds appearing. Florets became visible on March 3, marking the second stage of the blooming process.

The blooming period takes place when 20% of the blossoms are open, though frost or high temperatures combined with wind or rain can shorten it.

Cherry blossoms were in full bloom in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 26, 2020. The cherry blossom festival is held toward the end of March, making these flowers about a month early. (Twitter/@StevenMayJr)

In 2017, a frost swept through the area and hindered the bloom of the flowers.

"We had a very mild winter and the trees were coming out fairly early. And then we hit three nights in a row where the temperatures got below that critical 27 degrees. We lost probably half of the blossoms that year," Litterst said.

As far as colder conditions go, Litterst said the only bad thing is if the area gets subfreezing temperatures as the flowers are starting to emerge, which is typically in the fourth and fifth stage of blooming.

"Then we get damage, we'll get die-offs for some of the blossoms," Litterst said.

If the buds are at their third stage or earlier, they're typically protected against the cold.

"We do expect the mild weather to largely dominate the month of March. There could be brief cool down for a couple days next weekend, otherwise temperatures will largely feel like spring," AccuWeather Meteorologist Tyler Roys said.

While Washington, D.C., had an extreme departure from normal amount of snow, it had an above-normal amount of rain this winter at 9.28 inches of rain. The normal is 8.57 inches of rain.

"It is March. Even though the month will largely be mild, there could be a couple brief cool shots," Roys said. "These we have to watch as the low temperatures could possibly get close to freezing, especially if it occurs later in the month, this could impact the blooming."

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