DC's National Arboretum a Quieter Place to Enjoy Cherry Blossoms

11 April, 2018

Each year at the start of spring, more than 1 million people travel to Washington, D.C., for one major reason: the cherry blossoms.

Most of the travelers visit an area known as the Tidal Basin. During "peak bloom," the Tidal Basin is bursting with color. It is also bursting with people.

But there is another, quieter way to enjoy Washington's cherry blossoms.

Cherries at the Arboretum

About eight kilometers across town, you will find the United States National Arboretum, a huge public garden and research collection.

The United States Congress established the Arboretum in 1927. Its aim is to use research and conservation to improve the appearance and environmental and economic value of plants.

Cherry tree research is one of the Arboretum's specialties, says Margaret Pooler. She is the director of research. She and her team work on developing a larger base of cherry trees.

"Most people know the Yoshino Cherries, they know the Kwanzan Cherries, the familiar one that you see down at the Tidal Basin. But what a lot of people don't realize is that there's so many other species that we can use to broaden the base of the cultivated plants that we see. So, that's what we're trying to do."

Today, the Arboretum has more than 1,000 different cherry trees. Some are short and wide. Others grow tall. A few are "weeping" trees. Their long, flowering branches hang down near the ground.

The Arboretum's research fields, where researchers plant cherry tree hybrids.
The Arboretum's research fields, where researchers plant cherry tree hybrids.

Pooler showed VOA Learning English around the Arboretum's research field. In late March and early April, this wide, open space comes to life with flowering cherry trees. Some produce bright white blooms. Others are different shades of pink.

Many of them are new species of cherry trees developed by Arboretum scientists themselves. They are "hybrid" cherry trees, Pooler explains.

"In our research program, we create hybrids. That is, we take pollen from one plant and put it on another plant to combine the best traits from both of those. And so, most of the plants here in our research field are various hybrids of that kind that we've created."

Most of the hybrids are known only by number. But scientists have given some of hybrids names, such as Dream Catcher and First Lady. One cherry hybrid is called Helen Taft, in honor of the wife of former U.S. President William Howard Taft. She played an important role in bringing cherry trees to America.

A flowering cherry tree hybrid is seen in the National Arboretum's research field
A flowering cherry tree hybrid is seen in the National Arboretum's research field

"The really, really good ones, those are the ones that we end up naming and we release to...the public to then grow and produce."

Pooler has worked on cherry trees at the Arboretum for more than 20 years. She lists two "weeping" trees as among her favorites there.

"I like them because they're just huge. I mean, they're just awesome trees. But I like them also because they tend to not bloom very long. When they're in bloom, they're just spectacular."

The Arboretum has a self-guided tour of its cherry trees. People can use the small book to learn about the different species. The book describes about 35 kinds of cherries.

Among them are genetic matches of a few of the original trees that were planted at the Tidal Basin back in 1912. The trees were a gift to the United States from Japan.

"Very few of those original plants still exist there. We got involved with the National Park Service a few years ago to help propagate or clone some of those original plants. So, we have some of those planted here."

Visiting the Arboretum

Antonio and Marlen are from Spain and now live in the state of Maryland. They visited the Arboretum with their two young children and had a picnic near one of the flowering trees. The family had gone to the Tidal Basin earlier that day to see the cherry blossoms, as well.

"Here you see nature around, which is like, better...I prefer Arboretum than [to] Tidal Basin."

Emily Kowalksi and Elisabeth Seburg had just arrived to Washington from Minnesota. They came straight from the airport to the Arboretum to see the cherry blossoms, Kowalski said.

"There's this one we just walked up on and from afar, just the view from afar you can't even take a picture of it because it's just something you have to take in with your own eyes."

Whether at the Arboretum, Tidal Basin or elsewhere, cherry blossoms are a special part of life in America's capital. Along with being beautiful to look at, the trees are something Washingtonians can "count on" every year, Pooler says.

"Even when the spring is late or drawn out or cold or even when winter is freezing cold and our temperatures are terrible, we know, no matter what happens...even when things are happening in Washington politically...it doesn't matter. These cherries are going to bloom every year. We can totally count on them."

I'm Ashley Thompson.

Ashley Thompson wrote this story for Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor. Dorothy Gundy produced the video.


Words in This Story

garden - n. an area of ground where plants (such as flowers or vegetables) are grown

broaden - v. to make (something) wider or more general

cultivated - adj. raised or grown on a farm or under other controlled conditions

shade - n. a particular type of a color that is lighter, darker, etc., than other types — usually + of

awesome - adj. extremely good

spectacular - adj. causing wonder and admiration : very impressive

tour - n. an activity in which you go through a place (such as a building or city) in order to see and learn about the different parts of it

match - n. someone or something that is equal to or as good as another person or thing

original - adj. happening or existing first or at the beginning

propagate - v. to produce (a new plant)

clone - v. to make an exact copy of (a person, animal, or plant)