National Cherry Blossom Festival

Meet Stumpy, the Little Cherry Tree That Could

Stumpy went viral on Reddit in 2020, and despite his disheveled appearance, he still blooms every spring

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The phrase "cherry blossom season" often conjures up images of lush, full trees, with strong branches reaching up toward the sky and hundreds of flower petals gently drifting into the Tidal Basin.

But one tree, on the southeast portion of the Tidal Basin near the Jefferson Memorial, is a little different from the others.

The tree, affectionately nicknamed "Stumpy" by Washington, D.C. residents, went viral in 2020 after one visitor to the area posted a photo of him to the r/washingtondc subreddit.

"This tree a little aways from Jefferson memorial is as dead as my love life, but I love it!" reads the post.

A February, 2020 post to the r/washingtondc subreddit shows Stumpy in all his scraggly glory.

The account that originally made the post has since been deleted, but the post itself, and a multitude of supportive comments responding to it, remain online.

"You know what that old tree is doing?" said one user. "It's best."

"Mostly dead, it's slightly alive," said another user, seemingly referencing a famous scene from the 1987 cult classic film "The Princess Bride."

The post was made on Feb. 26, 2020 — just over two weeks before COVID-19 was officially declared a global pandemic and institutions around the world closed indefinitely.

While most of the comments were left before the pandemic hit the U.S., the tone of a follow-up thread by a different user shows how Stumpy's resilience hit home in the District as the uncertainty grew.

"Faith in humanity +1," said one commenter on March 15, 2020. "I needed this after all the chaos this week."

Reddit users — not just the now-deleted account that made the original post, but also other avid Stumpy fans — posted progress photos as the tree bloomed that spring, and eventually gave him his famous moniker.

A follow-up post on the r/washingtondc subreddit shows the progress in Stumpy's blossoms in 2020.

Some users also wondered how Stumpy ended up as threadbare as he is.

According to Mike Litterst, the chief of communications for the National Park Service, it's because the tides regularly cause water to overflow the protective seawall in the southeast part of the Tidal Basin, inundating the trees and their root systems.

"Too much water on a tree's roots can be just as damaging as too little," Litterst said in an email. "Excess soil moisture can reduce oxygen in the soil, damage fine root hairs, and render the root system unable to absorb water."

The flooding can cause trees to wilt, cause "leaf scorch" (when the leaves of a tree turn brown and eventually die), "dieback" (where the branches or roots of a tree wither and then die), or the death of the entire tree.

Overflow in Stumpy's neighborhood along the Tidal Basin means his days are, unfortunately, numbered.

"While we don't have any projections about how long this tree will be able to survive... eventually the constant water will take its toll and the tree will die (or we will remove it, as was done with a dozen or so other trees in that area a few years ago)," Litterst said.

Stumpy's adoring fans on social media sometimes call for him to be replanted somewhere that doesn't flood. But according to Litterst, it's too late for that.

"We would probably do far more damage to it if we tried to move it than if we just allow it to remain in place," Litterst said.

Repair of the seawall in that area has already begun, and when it's finished, dead trees in that area will be replaced.

But in the meantime, there's good news for those who appreciate the symbolism of a scraggly, worn-down tree tirelessly creating beauty in the face of adversity: Three years later, Stumpy is still going strong.

"As the blossoms show, Stumpy is not just surviving. Stumpy is thriving," Litterst said.

Maggie More / WRC
Stumpy, complete with budding cherry blossoms, on March 7, 2023.

Just like the other cherry trees around D.C., Stumpy was sporting pink buds on March 7, 2023, creeping toward peak bloom, like all his friends.

By March 23, his flowers were out in full force.

Maggie More / WRC
Stumpy, with flowers at peak bloom on March 22, 2023.

And Stumpy still gets crowds of fans online and in person. One couple even drove down to the Tidal Basin on March 23 specifically to see him.

The NPS announced later that afternoon that the Tidal Basin's cherry trees have officially reached peak bloom.

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