WASHINGTON — Springtime in the nation's capital brings many things: shorts, mosquitos, and an Instagram feed filled to the brim with cherry blossom photoshoots.
Scroll through the Tidal Basin location tag or #CherryBlossomDC and you'll spot locals' and tourists' selfies holding onto cherry blossom branches and flowers. But with the photoshoots come reminders on social media not to break off those branches or shake them to get petals to fall.
A post on the Washington, D.C. subreddit started a discussion about the fragile trees that sprinkle our region. The poster says they've watched people shake tree branches to get that snow effect from blossom petals and is pleading with them to stop. Some comments say that it's actually illegal to do this, so we brought that question to an expert to get all the details.
Is it illegal to shake, break and take cherry blossom branches in DC?
Yes. It is illegal to harm or harvest from any natural resources under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. That includes most of the cherry blossom trees in the district.
- Catherine Townsend, the President and CEO of the Trust for the National Mall, a philanthropic, nonprofit partner of the National Park Service that oversees the National Mall
- National Park Service (NPS)
The Sakura cherry trees were first planted in the nation's capital in 1912 as a gift of friendship to the people of the U.S. from the people of Japan. More than 100 years later, they're one of the biggest spring tourist attractions in D.C.
But the downside of all that foot traffic is the foot traffic itself.
Catherine Townsend works hard to preserve the health and beauty of the National Mall and the Tidal Basin. She says these cherry trees are fragile and need to be treated with care.
"The environment here is not the environment in Japan," Townsend explains. "They've been transplanted and brought to the United States and they're in a very interesting environment."
She says there are only half a dozen of the original trees left on the Tidal Basin; about 90 trees a year have to be replaced. Their deterioration is a combination of the local environment, rising water levels and human intervention.
"As far as people touching them, hanging on the branches and stomping on their roots, these trees need a lot of care year-round, and they get inundated twice daily with brackish water from the rising tides at the Tidal Basin," Townsend says.
But what most people don't know is that they're not just harming these precious trees, they're actually breaking the law.
"You are not allowed to damage any natural resources in national parks, and that includes the trees," Townsend says. "There's the actual language that says you can't harvest, which means you're not allowed to actually pluck the blossoms off the cherry trees."
Mike Litterst with the National Park Service tells WUSA9 "we ask our visitors to refrain from any activity that could damage or stress the cherry trees, including climbing, breaking off limbs and branches, or shaking the trees."
"You wouldn't hang on your grandma or you wouldn't, you know, pull her hair," Townsend explained, laughing. "You really want to just treat these beautiful trees with tender love and care and just respect and appreciate what they symbolize."
Townsend says keeping these beautiful trees in tact can run up a high price tag. You can donate to the Trust for the National Mall or adopt a tree to help with cherry blossom trimming and upkeep HERE.