730DC’s Not a Swamp: Cherry Blossoms in the Time of COVID-19

A guide to help people enjoy nature while also practicing social distancing.

Sam Nelson
Mar 20, 2020 · 8 min read

pring keeps springing, with or without our attention to it. The pandemic has tethered many of us to our homes, if we’re lucky to have that choice.

For me, the pandemic has underscored our collective, complex (im)balance with nature and the environment. So find the right tree (or backyard plant). Slow down and sit with it. Contemplate the smallness of humans and enjoy the ephemeral ebb of pollution as a silvery-lined symptom of this phenomenon. A tree-friend is good for that kind of thing.

Tips: If you venture outside, use the restroom first (many restrooms are closed), wash up, and pack a bag of snacks, gloves, water, sanitizer, etc. Upon return, change clothes and shower.

For those fortunate enough that we can venture outside, follow CDC guidelines strictly.

Included are:

  1. Alternative crowd-avoidance ideas for cherry blossom watching around peak bloom
  2. Advice on open green spaces
  3. Virtual tours for those sheltering in place.

Alternative Cherry Blossom Watch

Peak bloom is March 21–24th this year and it happens to fall on a sunny weekend. This should be ideal, but while the Instagram-gawking crowds at the Tidal Basin will be diminished this year, I’d recommend avoiding the place on the weekend. Perhaps the 100+ year old trees’ roots deserve a respite from the march of several thousand sneakers. Rather than seek mass blooms, I encourage you to find that one special tree from the list below and sit under it. From that vantage point, you may become amicably acquainted with all the bees buzzing in and out of blossoms and the bugs flitting about and soon you’ll be in good company. If there’s a breeze, some petals may flutter down around you, as if blessing you, which is a feeling we could all use about now.

Clockwise from top left: Library of Congress ; Glenwood Cemetery; Potomac River; Michigan Ave NE (Sam Nelson)
  1. Glenwood Cemetery (NE) — No crowds here. This private, historic cemetery has been around since 1854, and it’s low-key one of the best places in the city for cherry blossoms. Mature yoshinos (Prunus x. yedoensis) are planted in rows across the site. As a bonus, you can check out the chainsaw-sculptures made from long-gone oaks. In general, D.C. has a lot of gorgeous tree-treasured cemeteries, and social distancing is easy even on non-virus days. Entrance on Lincoln Rd NE. (open until sunset)

2) American University’s Korean Cherry Trees (NW) — Classes have moved online for now, so the campus (which is an arboretum) is quiet, including a little-known patch of remarkable history: Syngman Rhee, South Korea’s first president, helped plant two cherry trees in 1943 on American’s campus in a political ceremony. More have been added since. Cherry trees are widely known as Japanese natives, but they’re common in Korea, too, and this historic grove puts on a show to remind us.

3) Lower Senate Park (NE) — A hidden gem in plain sight of downtown D.C. Similar to the capitol lawns, it is managed by the Architect of the Capitol, and this section south of Union Station is rarely busy, bloated, or bustling. During cherry-blossom time, it’s serene and snowy-white. Because almost all congressional offices have sent staffers home to telework, the U.S Capitol Grounds are quiet and uncrowded currently; even the old cherry groves on the capitol lawns are quiet now.

4) There’s a whole lot of color along Michigan Avenue NE, especially near its curving intersection with Irving NE. I know that visiting a strip of grass along a six-lane road in D.C. isn’t sexy for flower-watching, but there is a fantastic grove of white-petaled cherry trees on this stretch. They form a nice line to Harewood Road NE and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception as well as Catholic University campus, which has also moved classes online. There are ostensibly over 150 cherry trees in and around the basilica and nary the crowd in a regular season. This might be the perfect place to sit under a cherry tree alone and chill.

5) Oxon Run Park (SE) — Due to a large-scale planting a few years ago, this park now has the second largest grove of cherry trees in the city. The trees are young, but don’t the youth deserve some adoration, too? In the near future, this could be the city’s best place for blossom-gazing.

6) Foxhall Village — if you’re out in Georgetown and Glover Park and are lamenting the close of Dumbarton Oaks (more on that below), take a stroll down Surrey Lane to check out the Kanzan cherry trees (Prunus serrulata ‘Kanzan’), which I prefer to Yoshinos. They bloom later and have bushier, blushing blossoms of a deeper pink hue.

7) Got a car or bike? Screw the Tidal Basin. Cruise the circuit along East Potomac Park. This spot is not a secret to most of us, but I think its arcade of cherry trees exceeds the beauty of the Tidal Basin. Keep in mind it will likely be busy in the afternoons with runners, cyclists, and some tourists, so I recommend early morning or late evening visits or a car ride. (UPDATE: National Park Service is blocking car traffic along Tidal Basin and East Potomac Park on Sunday to prevent the crowds that appeared on Saturday).

8) Your neighborhood. There are some stunning cherry trees in front yards and streets. Beyond cherry trees, many yards are awash in colors and interesting details — bright-buttery forsythia, eager narcissus, red quince, tufts of elm flowers, alien-like ovules emerging from ginkgo buds. You don’t need a park for any of this, just attention to detail.

Clockwise from top left: Lower Senate Park; cherry bark’s lenticels show where the tree respires; 400 block of Allison Street NW in Petworth (Sam Nelson); Korean Cherry trees at AU (courtesy of American University)

Nature Walks

Some places have closed their indoor facilities (and bathrooms) but are keeping their grounds open to public during normal hours. There’s more than cherry trees to enjoy these days. But I suggest avoiding main trails or weekend afternoons to eschew human groups:

1) National Arboretum — Expect small crowds this weekend for cherry blossoms. Otherwise, the arboretum is a quiet respite, especially during the week, and it’s so expansive that there is always something new to uncover. No car traffic is allowed in the arboretum after 2 pm on weekdays. Two of my favorite sections for a quiet, uncrowded walk are in the Asia Valley or the dwarf conifer collection. (No restrooms)

2) Brookside Gardens (Montgomery County) — Outdoor gardens and grounds remain open from sunrise to sunset. There is a gorgeous weeping cherry and other early blossoms. Also, there are several hiking trails that take you through Wheaton Regional Park.

3) Kingman and Heritage Islands — These are typically quiet places for a stroll even in pre-corona days, so if you’re looking for a bit of wilderness off the main river trails of Anacostia Park, this is the place (or Fort Dupont Park if you’re further inland and east of the river).

4) Rock Creek Park’s hiking trails — The fitness trail running along the creek has been busy with exercisers. And it’s often narrow. RCP is full of wonderful other hiking trails that lack runners and bikers. My favorite is the Western Ridge Trail, which is wide enough to pass folks comfortably. But there are lots of quiet off-shoots, especially off the main trails north of Peirce Mill where the park widens.

5) Hillwood Estate– While the buildings are closed, the thirteen acres of formal gardens remain open (see update below). This place is a quiet respite any day of the week. The elms are grand. The parterre is immaculate. The Japanese gardens will unflutter the jitters in your chest. And you will probably see more cherry trees than few people. Enjoy. UPDATE: As of 3/20/20, Hillwood Estate has decided to close the gardens, too.

Clockwise from top left: Hillwood Estate’s Japanese Gardens; Weeping Blue Atlas Cedar in dwarf conifer collection at National Arboretum; Prunus x incam ‘Okame’ at National Arboretum; Weeping cherry ‘Penula’ at Brookside Gardens (Sam Nelson — 2019)

Online Tours — Washington, D.C.

If you’re sheltering in place, try to take a break from the media’s nonstop conveyor belt of angst to check out some plants:

  1. National Mall BloomcamHere’s a 24/7 live camera feed of the cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin.
  2. Dumbarton Oaks — The gardens are closed, but virtual/video tours are open. Enjoy videos of the museum, a tour of Cherry Hill, and shots of the allée of plum blossoms along the brick terrace that is unique to D.C. Pioneering gardener, Beatrix Farrand, lined the terraced corridor with Prunus x. blireana, a rare and gorgeous hybrid from Bléré, France, using Prunus mume and Prunus cerasifera. If only we could digitize a fragrance…

3. U.S. Botanic Gardens (Virtual video tour here. Instagram: @usbotanicgarden — They’ve been posting video tours of exhibits, plants, and orchids)

From 2019: Cherry Hill and Prunus x. blireana at Dumbarton Oaks (Sam Nelson)

Beyond D.C.

4. Longwood Gardens — (Instagram tours of this magical property: @longwoodgardens)

5. Kew Royal Botanic Gardens (London’s historic gardens is among the best in the world — learn something new from their Facebook videos)

Clockwise from top left: Cherry tree at Library of Congress; old cherry tree at Tidal Basin (2019); Prunus yedoensis; plum tree off Metropolitan Bike Trail; Ginkgo “bud” (Sam Nelson)

Follow Sam Nelson for more tree stuff @tree_gazing on IG or on Medium or Twitter @samwriteteach. Let us know your favorite spots! Thanks for reading. And check back in early April for more blooms if we’re not all sheltering inside by then.

730DC

Connecting Washingtonians to their city, to their…

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store