158 Cherry Blossom Trees Will Be Cut Down in D.C. in Effort to Withstand Sea-Level Rise

The National Park Service’s restoration project will reconstruct a protective seawall and plant 274 new cherry blossoms when work is complete

A view of the Jefferson Memorial across the Tidal Basin, seen through pink cherry blossom tree branches
The Jefferson Memorial and the Tidal Basin, as seen through blooming cherry blossom branches. Jay Wald via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

This spring, Washington, D.C.’s beloved cherry blossom trees reached their earliest peak bloom in more than two decades, a consequence of an abnormally warm winter, consistent with climate change trends. The blossoms around the city’s Tidal Basin reached “peak bloom” on March 17—between one and three weeks earlier than in recent years, and a full week ahead of this year’s projected peak, writes CBS News’ Li Cohen. It was the second-earliest peak bloom ever observed.

Climate change is also driving yet another soon-to-arrive disruption. After the end of this spring’s National Cherry Blossom Festival, the National Park Service will cut down 158 cherry trees from the nearly 3,700 total to reconstruct a seawall around the Tidal Basin, fortifying the area against sea level rise and extreme precipitation events.

Including trees of other species, about 300 will be removed. When the seawall project is complete, the park service will plant 274 new cherry blossom trees along with other species, adding to 455 trees in all.

The construction will be part of a three-year, $113 million project funded by the federal government’s Great American Outdoors Act Legacy Restoration Fund. The project will raise parts of the walkway around the Tidal Basin and Potomac River, and its walls “will be high enough to withstand about 100 years of future sea level rise,” writes NPR’s Jacob Fenston.

Visitors walk underneath the National Mall's cherry blossom trees, in bloom.
This year's National Cherry Blossom Festival takes place from March 20 through April 14. Eric T Gunther via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

The land around the Tidal Basin has sunk by about five feet over the last century, while the water level has risen by more than a foot. The basin’s waters, which connect to the Potomac River, are subject to the same tidal flows as Earth’s oceans, which are gradually rising due to melting ice and the expansion of warming seawater.

Visitors to the area during high tide have likely experienced its flooded sidewalks, benches and trees, a roughly twice-per-day occurrence.

“The part that we got engaged in [20 years ago] is now under water,” Jody Axinn, a cherry blossom visitor, tells NPR. “The whole path, the whole section, it’s under water. I come down and tell my kids, ‘Children, Dad and I got engaged in that watery area.’”

Among the 158 felled trees will be the city’s most famous: Stumpy, the 25-year-old cherry tree that became an internet sensation in 2020 for its haggard, decrepit look. The partially rotted tree has only a few branches, but it achieved local celebrity status—and has been the centerpiece of artistic creations and public tributes.

But even Stumpy cannot escape the Tidal Basin’s brackish flows, which during high tide submerge its trunk in a few inches of standing water. These repeated inundations have prevented the tree from growing, resulting in its unusual appearance.

“We have known for some time that, unfortunately, Stumpy would have to come down,” Mike Litterst, a National Park Service spokesperson, tells Washingtonian’s Jessica Ruf. “We’ve been fretting for several years that if mother nature didn’t take its course, we would have to make this announcement.”

The restoration project—expected to be complete in 2027—is part of an even larger $500 million initiative to improve the National Mall for the country’s 250th birthday in 2026.

Cherry blossom trees encircle the Tidal Basin
Cherry blossom trees encircle the Tidal Basin, where waters overflow twice per day at high tide. Debojyotilahiri via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

It isn’t known exactly how old the trees slated for removal are, but the cherry blossoms were originally a gift from Japan in 1912.

The pink pastel icons won’t be lost for good—they will be ground into mulch that will ultimately return to the Tidal Basin, nourishing the remaining cherry blossoms.

“The mulch will be placed on the roots of living trees, so they provide some protection and some barriers to all the foot traffic,” Litterst tells the Washington Post’s Michael E. Ruane. “This way they literally, in one form or another, live on for years.”

Stumpy’s legacy will also live on—clippings from the tree will be sent to the National Arboretum for propagation. These will grow into trees that are genetic matches to Stumpy, and they will later be planted around the newly fortified Tidal Basin, ushering in another generation of the cherry blossom icon.

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