Over 100 iconic cherry trees in Washington will be cut down. So long, Stumpy

The sun is setting on Stumpy, the gnarled old cherry tree that has become a social media phenom

Ashraf Khalil
Friday 22 March 2024 04:02 GMT

The sun is setting on Stumpy, the gnarled old cherry tree that has become a social media phenom. This year's cherry blossom festivities in Washington will be the last for Stumpy and more than 100 other cherry trees that will be cut down as part of a multiyear restoration of their Tidal Basin home.

Starting in early summer, crews will begin working to replace the crumbling seawall around the Tidal Basin, the area around the Jefferson Memorial with the highest concentration of cherry trees. The work has been long overdue, as the deterioration, combined with rising sea levels, has resulted in Potomac waters regularly surging over the barriers.

The twice-daily floods at high tide not only cover some of the pedestrian paths, they also regularly soak some of the cherry trees' roots. The $133 million project to rebuild and reinforce the sea wall will take about three years, said Mike Litterst, National Park Service spokesman for the National Mall.

“It’s certainly going to benefit the visitor experience, and that’s very important to us," Litterst said. “But most of all, it’s going to benefit the cherry trees, who right now are every day, twice a day, seeing their roots inundated with the brackish water of the Tidal Basin.” Litterst said entire stretches of trees to the water, as wide as 100 yards or 90 meters, have been lost and can't be replaced "until we fix the underlying cause of what killed them in the first place.”

Stumpy remains alive, if in rough shape.

Plans call for 140 cherry trees — and 300 trees total — to be removed and turned into mulch. When the project is concluded, 277 cherry trees will be planted as replacements.

The mulch will protect the roots of surviving trees from foot traffic and break down over time into nutrient-rich soil, “so it’s a good second life" for the trees being cut down, Litterst said.

The National Cherry Blossom Festival is widely considered to be the start of the tourist season in the nation’s capital. Organizers expect 1.5 million people to view the pink and white blossoms this year, the most since the pandemic. Already, large numbers of cherry blossom fans are being drawn to the area as the trees approach peak bloom.

Stumpy became a social media star during the pandemic fever dream of 2020. Its legacy has spawned T-shirts, a calendar and a fanbase. News of Stumpy's final spring has prompted people to leave flowers and bourbon and had one Reddit user threatening to chain themselves to the trunk to save the tree.

The good news on Stumpy is that the National Arboretum plans to take parts of the tree's genetic material and create clones, some of which will eventually be replanted at the Tidal Basin.

The regular flooding at the Tidal Basin — sea levels have risen about a foot since the the seawall was built in the early 1990s — is just one of the ways climate change has impacted the cherry trees. Rising global temperatures and warmer winters have caused peak bloom to creep earlier in the calendar.

This year's peak bloom, when 70% of the city’s 3,700 cherry trees will be flowering, should start between Saturday and Tuesday. By comparison, the 2013 peak bloom began on April 9. Leslie Frattaroli, national resources program manager for the Park Service, told The Associated Press in February that peak bloom could come in the middle of March by 2050.

“All the timing is off." he said. “It’s a huge cascading effect.”

Another weather side effect: A mid-March cold snap in the D.C. area should actually extend this year's bloom past the predicted April 9 ending.

For visitors and cherry blossom enthusiasts, the annual tradition of a stroll on the Tidal Basin under the flowers is a core Washington experience.

Jorge and Sandra Perez make a point of coming every year from Stafford, Virginia.

"Yes, we have cherry blossoms in my community, but it’s a completely different feel when you see all of them bloom together," Sandra said. “And you can walk through, you know, the trees under it and smell it. And it’s just it’s a beautiful view."

They also came looking for Stumpy, having heard the legend and knowing this would be its final spring.

“It’s actually beautiful," Jorge said. “So it’s sad to see him leave.”


Associated Press journalist Nathan Ellgren contributed to this report.

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