Cherry blossom trees throughout Philadelphia are already beginning to bloom, blanketing grassy fields and city cars with petals in all shades of pink and white.
Head gardener Sandi Polyakov of the Japan American Society of Greater Philadelphia (JASGP) predicts we’ll see peak bloom in Philadelphia in the first two weeks of April, with the cherry blossoms along the Schuylkill River and into West Fairmount Park reaching their peak around April 8, which coincides with the Shofuso Cherry Blossom Festival (which runs April 8 to 10).
How long does cherry blossom season last?
Once a tree begins to bloom, it holds its blossoms for about a week or two at most. It’s a fleeting marker of spring that brings joy every year.
“In Japan, the blossoms are considered special in part due to their ephemeral nature,” says Polyakov. “One moment they’re bursting with bright beauty, and the next they’re gone, only our memory of them left as proof they were even here, but the seasons and life go on. It’s kind of this poetic allusion to life itself. Enjoy it while it lasts.”
Cherry blossom petals thrive on consistency and sunshine. For a longer season, we can hope for cool and dry weather, with temperatures in the 50s and 60s.
“A light spring shower won’t really do much harm, but a big, prolonged storm with heavy downpours can cut the party short,” says Polyakov, noting a hard freeze in the later bud development stages or during bloom can also sabotage the blossoms. A wave of humidity and harsh heat can cause petals to drop early, too.
Where to see cherry blossoms in Philadelphia
If you’re wondering where you can find cherry trees, the city is filled with them, some dating to 1926, when the Japanese government gave the city 1,600 trees.
“It was a gift of friendship. Those first gifts went to [Washington] D.C. to establish the tone from Japanese government,” says Kim Andrews, executive director of the JASGP. “By 1926, Japan had been making gifts to large cities throughout the world, and Philadelphia got to be one of the recipients.”
Every spring in Japan, cherry blossoms, known as sakura, bring people together to take part in ohanami, which translates to “flower watching.” It’s a cultural tradition where friends and family picnic under the blooming trees, often sharing both food and sake.
“In the big cities it’s kind of like tailgating,” says Andrews. “People will go out in the morning and lay out their blanket to save their spot for when they get off work.”
It’s also a time to pause and simply reflect on the moment.
“When you go through Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting, sometimes you just want to say ‘stop a second’ and just really be in the moment,” says Yuka Yokoyama, associate director of exhibits and programs for JASGP. “This way of life is embedded in Japanese culture, which you can see in the tea ceremony, but it’s also a way of thinking.”
Yokoyama moved here more than 20 years ago from Hiroshima. She fondly looks back to memories of her parents habitually checking the weather reports for the latest cherry blossom predictions. Today, Yokoyama says that first smell of the blossoms continues to serve as an instant reminder to take a step back and “appreciate where we are right now.”
Since 1997, JASGP and the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden have held an annual Cherry Blossom Festival in West Fairmount Park to celebrate Philadelphia’s own cherry trees. Roughly 100 of the original trees from the Japanese government still stand near Shofuso, planted outside of the Fairmount Park Horticulture Center.
From 1998 to 2007, JASGP planted an additional 1,000 cherry trees, replacing many of the aging originals. Trees were also added to new areas along the Schuylkill, near the Philadelphia Museum of Art, behind the Please Touch Museum, and along Montgomery Avenue in West Fairmount Park.
Since 2007, JASGP has also planted dozens of cherry trees in Clark Park, Franklin Square, and Morris Park, in collaboration with community and neighborhood parks.
“It was part of a concerted effort to make sure we establish cherry blossom culture in Philadelphia,” says Andrews. “Last year, Fairmount Park was locked down, so no one really got to enjoy them. This year, we look at the blossoms as a recovery and renewal moment, as a symbol of hope, a representation of life continuing.”
You’ll also find cherry trees in Washington Square, along Columbus Boulevard and Delancey Street, and near the Eastern State Penitentiary.
How to participate in this year’s Cherry Blossom Festival
While there wasn’t an in-person Cherry Blossom Festival in Philly last year, the JASGP and Shofuso are resuming in-person festivities this April.
From April 8 to April 10, you can admire the blossoms while listening to live music (for free), as part of the new Sakura Concert Series, from local performers at the Horticulture Center in West Fairmount Park. On the night of Saturday, April 9, attendees can view illuminated cherry blossoms (called Yozakura, or “night cherry blossom”) starting around 7:30 p.m. While there is no admission cost for the festival, paid admission is required to enter the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden.
“We’re still in this pandemic, there’s more societal changes going on than we can handle, and we’re especially dealing with Asian hate right now, but I’d love to see the community come together to simply appreciate the cherry blossoms,” says Yokoyama. “It’s as simple as that, to have a universal message of peace that goes beyond this racial tension.”
Shofuso is also open to visitors Wednesday through Sunday, and it’s Yokoyama’s favorite place to view them. Tickets are $14 to explore the traditional-style Japanese house and its surrounding gardens.
If you’re simply interested in viewing cherry blossoms on your own, Shofuso’s map will help you find locations throughout the city. Pick it up for free at Shofuso or download it online. JASGP commissioned Japanese artist and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts instructor Hiro Sakaguchi to create the hand-painted map, pinpointing cherry trees throughout Fairmount Park and beyond.
Did you miss peak bloom in Philly?
“City trees bloom a little earlier than their siblings in the suburbs,” says Polyakov. “If you feel like we’re at the tail end of your favorite variety in the city, try checking out a nearby garden or arboretum outside the city limits.”
Download Shofuso’s cherry blossom viewing map at japanphilly.org. Free maps are also available at Shofuso Japanese House and Garden, located at Lansdowne and Horticultural Drives, open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wed.-Sun.
Steven White contributed to this article.