Stumpy: DC’s most middling cherry tree gets center stage as zero hour approaches. (MONTAGE)

As spring begins, I’m going to use the changing seasons to pivot toward a recurring theme in my articles: scraggly trees in Washington DC.  The first article—which went to print right before the official start of winter 2023—focused on a white mulberry tree (or two) near Washington Monument that depended on braces and scaffolding to remain standing.  Despite the fact that the National Park Service (NPS) has invested considerable money in keeping these invasive trees alive, they don’t attract much attention.  And they’re the only trees in the immediate area; otherwise the land surrounding Washington Monument is a carefully manicured lawn.  Now, as winter draws to a close with the expected flourish of spring color, Washingtonians witness the annual emergence of cherry blossom season, where the Japanese Yoshino cherry tree blooms in greater density and with more vividness in the nation’s capital than anywhere else in the country.  This year, amidst the thousands of trees lining the banks of the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park, one particular tree received inordinate attention.  And it is scraggly.  Or, as its name implies, Stumpy.

Stumpy - the resilient cherry tree in DC's Tidal Basin

Washington’s cherry trees are in peak blossom as I type.  The photo series in this article dates from a little after sunrise on Wednesday, March 20.  The upcoming weekend will welcome scores of visitors to the city for the waning days of roseate abundance.  And, with high winds and rains expected over the weekend, the petals will loosen in a matter of hours.  Cherry blossom season is difficult to pinpoint each year, since it generally only lasts about ten to fifteen days.  Arborists concede that it’s difficult to predict more than ten days in advance.  The best benchmark is St. Patrick’s Day, in that the peak bloom typically occurs after the rowdy parades; apparently this year the NPS determined that peak bloom was March 17th itself.  Actual bloom depends on the severity of winter temperatures; this year’s early peak owes itself entirely to a mild February, since January itself was plenty wintry.  Some of the biggest celebratory events, customarily scheduled the first weekend in April, will probably occur—as they often do—long after peak bloom.  Nonetheless, throughout the Cherry Blossom Festival, people wear lots of pink anyway, businesses decorate their exteriors, and coffee shops keep dishing out cherry blossom lattes for weeks to come.  (Flavored with cherry syrup in the spirit of the season; none of the trees in Washington DC bear fruit.)

That said, the blooms were vivid enough this past Wednesday to draw a reasonable crowd even before most people had started the work day.

The Tidal Basin, immediately south of the portion of the National Mall featuring the Washington Monument, represents the epicenter of the bloom, while the Jefferson Memorial, which flanks the southern bank of the Basin, serving as the signature landmark for vistas with the trees.

A few hours later into the morning and the area would be teeming with bloom-peepers.  It’s not yet congested at 7:30, with one clear exception: the viewing area around Stumpy.

Stumpy - the resilient cherry tree in DC's Tidal Basin

It’s hard to discern Stumpy from the backdrop of blossoms across the water, but it’s there in the final photo above, with the throngs just to its left.  I had to wait in line to get a clear view without people posing in front of it.

Stumpy - the resilient cherry tree in DC's Tidal Basin

Stumpy needs no explanation on how it got its name.  Judging stumpy in relation to the general size and shape of the other cherry trees, it’s about 85% defeated.  But the one surviving bough—that 15%—is clinging to life so magnificently that it achieves just as great of a bloom as the others.  How comforting it is that no malicious visitor has taken the requisite three minutes with a hacksaw to extirpate the remaining bough.  Heck, many people could probably sever Stumpy’s lifeline with their bare hands—SNAP.

I was superficially aware of Stumpy over the years through numerous jaunts around the perimeter of the Tidal Basin, but it never really occurred to me as much of anything.  This year Stumpy has achieved viral popularity for one obvious reason: it’s about to get felled, bloomy bough and all.  The littoral lands of the Tidal Basin, just a few hundred feet west and southwest of the Jefferson Memorial, explain why intervention is necessary.

Distant view of Stumpy at Tidal Basin

Most of the tidal basin has a clearly visible cement sea wall for soil retention purposes.  But increasingly frequent tidal surges have swelled the water above the wall, prompting visible erosion where the condition is most pronounced—specifically the shoreline near Stumpy.

sea wall repair will require removal of many cherry trees, including Stumpy
sea wall repair will require removal of many cherry trees, including Stumpy

Compare the above photos to other parts of the Tidal Basin where the sea wall is intact.

Tidal Basin cherry trees to get removed along with Stumpy

The differences are obvious.  In May, once the hubbub surrounding the cherry blossoms has subsided, the NPS will begin a three-year, $113-million dollar rehabilitation of the sea wall, which has deteriorated and sunk as much as five feet in some locations since its initial construction around the turn of the 20th century.  Water laps over the sea walls twice a day in the Tidal Basin; poor drainage causes the water to saturate the soil, hydrating the cherry trees more than they need.  Excess water in the root systems is just as damaging as insufficient water, resulting in deteriorating tree conditions like “leaf scorch” (off-season browning of leaves) or “dieback” (withering of branches, roots, or other woody material).

Stumpy is bearing the brunt of this excess water intrusion and, in many respects, is a testament to resilience.  But a do-nothing approach would eventually be too much for this silent sentinel.  And the NPS’s plans for repairing the sea wall will force the removal of Stumpy, as well as 157 other Japanese flowering cherry trees, mostly concentrated in the lands between the Jefferson and Franklin D. Roosevelt memorials, largely captured in the four photos below.

NPS will have to uproot nearly 150 additional trees (non-cherry) to aid the construction of these sea walls, intended to preserve not just the appearance of the Tidal Basin and West Potomac Park but the structural stability of the Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King memorials themselves. For those concerned about this intervention’s visual impact, the statistics should help allay fears: these grounds offer nearly 3,700 Yoshino cherry trees—a huge expansion from the original gift from Japan to the US prior to the First World War.  The number removed represents a fragment.  And, once the restoration is complete in 2027, the NPS intends to replace the lost foliage with 455 trees, including 274 new cherry trees.  Granted, the new trees will likely take many years to achieve the current blossoming brilliance, but these efforts will salvage the tremendous vistas afforded by the Tidal Basin and West Potomac Park in the long run.

most vulnerable part of Tidal Basin will require sea wall repair and tree removal, including Stumpy
most vulnerable part of Tidal Basin will require sea wall repair and tree removal, including Stumpy

And let’s not forget West Potomac Park, to the southeast of the Tidal Basin, which includes the windblown Hains Point, where the Washington Channel splits from the Potomac River.  This sizable island park features a huge quantity of the benevolently invasive species.  The trees from Hains Point are visible in the distance, seen from a vantage point in the blossom-festooned Wharf District.

And NPS’s expansive three-year plan will, without ever fully closing off the grounds, help preserve these images for decades to come.

Except for Stumpy, of course.  This scraggly survivor has enjoyed an escalating meme-like online culture since the announcement of its imminent demise, spawned by a Subreddit thread that achieved viral popularity in spring of 2020—a season of particularly lush pink blossoms, though poorly visited compared to most years (thanks to COVID).  Among the memes: stumpy mascots at various ramifications of the Cherry Blossom Festival, Lego recreations, Princess Bride references (“he’s only mostly dead”), and even preserved trimming that will go to the National Arboretum in an attempt to create Stumpy genetic matches.  The growing fondness for the Tidal Basin’s saddest tree no doubt evokes collective sympathy for any true underdog story.  Twice a day, Stumpy gets flooded, yet still surfaces, gasping for crisp springtime air.  The wood pulp and mulch from all the extricated and grinded trees will help fertilize the soil around both the survivors and the Yoshino cherry babies.

And, given the ineluctable ministrations of Mother Nature and Father Time, Washingtonians should expect a Son of Stumpy at some point in the future.

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4 thoughts on “Stumpy: DC’s most middling cherry tree gets center stage as zero hour approaches. (MONTAGE)

  1. Anna Maria Boß

    I totally missed the whole Stumpy drama until about a week before peak bloom. And then a colleague claimed all the cherry trees were going to be cut down. I suppose that is how rumors get started.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      funny how that works, isn’t it? And, while many of the gloriously healthy cherry trees in the area will also get cut down, little Stumpy hogs all of the attention.
      We’re just sympathetic to any underdog story!

      Reply
    2. Anna Maria Boß

      though all the people trampling around the already waterlogged trees for photo ops probably didn’t help Stumpy and his friends over the years.

      Reply

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