Cherry blossoms have a rich history in Japan, but it’s not hard to see why the trees’ beautiful spring blooms have continued to captivate as they’ve crossed oceans, cultures, and changing climates. Peak bloom times vary by year and region—with individual trees in bloom for only a few days before the ground beneath them is covered in pink petals. Symbolizing the transience of life, the flowers have inspired people to practice hanami, or the act of enjoying the blossoms, in orchards, botanic gardens, and organized festivals all over the world.
In the U.S., Washington, D.C., home to the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival, is known for its stunning collection of trees (most of which were gifts from Japan in the early 1900s), but the ornamental trees can be found flowering across the country from early February until mid-May. Here are seven of the best places to find cherry blossoms—and avoid the crowds around the Tidal Basin.
1. U.S. National Arboretum
While most of the cherry blossom-seekers crowd around Washington, D.C.’s Tidal Basin, head to the U.S. National Arboretum, located 5 miles northeast of the National Mall, for a more serene experience. Admission to the 446-acre park is free and includes natural wonders both large and small: the Grove of State Trees, nesting bald eagles, and centuries-old specimens at the National Bonsai Museum (one of which survived the nuclear blast in Hiroshima). Lesser-known are the 70 varieties of cherry trees that blossom here annually; visitors can locate the blooms using a free, self-guided tour available on the Arboretum’s mobile app.
Related: Washington, D.C., in the spring is a beautiful place to ponder the fleeting nature of life
2. Brooklyn Botanic Garden
The Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s popular Sakura Matsuri Cherry Blossom Festival is once again canceled due to the pandemic, but the garden’s 26 varieties of cherry trees will still put on a spectacular show sometime in April. Predictions of exactly when the trees will hit their peak depends on a variety of factors, but visitors can periodically check the BBG website’s interactive Cherrywatch, which indicates the bloom status of each individual tree. Different varieties bloom at different times, so no matter when you visit you can expect to be wowed by the allée of ornamental Kanzan trees (with bright pink pom-pom-like clusters) or cascading blooms of the weeping cherries circling the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden.
3. Missouri Botanical Garden
The Missouri Botanical Garden—the nation’s oldest botanical garden in continual operation—was founded in 1859. The 79 acres are home to more than 230 flowering trees, including ornamental cherries, peaches, plums, and apricots. Dozens of weeping cherries can be found in the 14-acre Japanese strolling garden, alongside other varieties that burst into fragrant pink and white blooms at the end of March into early April. Guests 21 and older can purchase tickets for the garden’s Sake and Sakura event on April 1, which includes seven sake samples, a souvenir tasting cup, and an opportunity to explore the garden’s Teahouse Island.
4. Japanese Friendship Garden of San Diego
Opened in Balboa Park in 1991 as “an expression of friendship between San Diego and its [Japanese] sister city, Yokohama,” Southern California’s Japanese Friendship Garden celebrates the tradition of hanami with a 3-day festival in early March. Visitors can enjoy food vendors, a beer and sake garden, and live performances while contemplating the fleeting beauty of life underneath the garden’s grove of 200 flowering cherry trees. The 12-acre accredited museum and garden—comprising educational exhibits and plants native to both continents—provides “a respite attuned to Japanese simplicity, serenity, and aestheticism.”
5. Sarah P. Duke Gardens
Founded in Durham, North Carolina, in the early 1930s by Duke Medical School faculty member Dr. Frederic M. Hanes (with financial assistance from Sarah P. Duke, widow of one of the university’s founders), this 55-acre living museum is home to thousands of native plants, a sustainable organic garden, and 60,000 tulips. Sarah P. Duke Gardens, located on university grounds, also has an impressive collection of flowering cherries spread throughout the property. The 18-acre William Louis Culberson Asiatic Arboretum includes Japanese maples, peonies, cherries, and other ornamental species—but the garden’s Akebono cherry tree allée, a tunnel of bright pink blooms, is the real showstopper.
6. Traverse City, Michigan
Since 1925, half a million people flock to Traverse City, Michigan, every July for the city’s 8-day National Cherry Festival. But before the sweet, dark cherries are turned into pies, jams, and other culinary delights, the trees that bear Michigan’s signature fruit flower in mid-May. The region is dotted with orchards—with peak bloom times depending on a number of weather and geographic factors—so visitors have at least a few weeks to enjoy the blooms. The Traverse City tourism board offers a free, downloadable self-guided tour—just keep in mind that most of the orchards are located on private farms, so be respectful while you snap your photos.
7. Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens
For a jump on cherry blossom season, head to an unlikely place: southeast Florida. Open since 1977, the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens “strives to spread appreciation for the living culture of Japan,” with tea ceremonies, rotating exhibits, and local educational outreach programs. The garden’s collection of flowering Taiwan cherry trees thrive in warmer regions such as Okinawa and usually bloom in early February. Because they’re rarely found in such a tropical climate, peak bloom is fickle and brief—but it’s this fleeting beauty that makes viewing the blossoms such a beloved tradition around the world.