Blossom BRIGADE Trimmers: In the early morning hours, two crews of laborers keep the Tidal Basin cherry trees healthy by cutting away dying branches.

March 22, 1997|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Trisha Yearwood croons on the radio as Rick Johnson bumps over the curb in a truck marked Property of the U.S. Government. He eases it onto the grass and shoves it in park in a grove of cherry trees. It's just before 7 a.m.

He and his crew have only a day to pretty up about 200 cherr trees on this grassy slope off Independence Avenue. Already, dirt and bark are smeared on their Rough Rider gloves and all over their forest green National Park Service dungarees.

The early-morning traffic whizzes by and leaves them unimpressed. In a hurry to get nowhere, they conclude, and turn their heads upward again, craning to see what needs pruning.

None of them has a Ph.D. in horticulture, but they know these trees as well as any expert with a degree. They can tell a cherry just by running a hand along its bark. They can squint at its profile and figure out if it will last the year without toppling. They can climb it in a few seconds, and descend it even faster. They can guess to the day when it will erupt in puffy white blooms.

"Believe me," Johnson says, "I could run the ink out of your pen just talking about trees."

The cherries are already covered with hard, red buds, a rose-colored haze from a distance. The 3,400 trees around the Tidal Basin are just days away from their annual bloom. When that happens, the place will be crawling with tourists.

But right now, Johnson and his crew are out here alone, their breath turning to fog in the chill off the Tidal Basin.

Most of the 12 guys who tend the cherries are just country boys who liked to climb trees when they were little and never stopped. It's the same thing every day: They put on their Red Wing work boots, find the gloves with their initials inked on the wrists and get to work.

"I think people are destined to do the jobs they do," says Johnson, 44, who drives 50 miles to the cherries from his home in Mount Airy. "The trees -- they are what we do."

The crews are responsible for the care of 13,600 trees growing on federal land around Washington. From January through March, though, the cherries get all the attention, and it's no wonder. Their 14 delicate varieties have been rather temperamental from the start.

A bad beginning

The first batch of trees, a gift from the Japanese, were placed along the Potomac River in 1910, but had to be burned after Department of Agriculture inspectors discovered an infestation of insects and nematodes. Two years later, the Japanese donated another 3,020 trees, which took root successfully.

The trees have always been considered a national treasure. This year's Cherry Blossom Festival, March 30 to April 13, will prompt the annual pilgrimage of thousands.

While tending the cherries is a high-profile job for a government tree crew, it is also time-consuming and labor-intensive. The cherries are a demanding breed.

Most of the work comes in the meticulous pruning: Laborers cut even the smallest branches if they are dying or blocking the healthiest buds. Crews saw down the biggest limbs that are scarred with darkened bark, a sign of decay, and take out even the pin-sized buds that sprout along the trunk, for fear they will sap energy from the rest of the tree.

Still, every year about 100 cherries die. Tree crews replace them with $250 saplings and inspect regularly for disease spread by insects. They install mesh barriers around the trunks to stop the beavers that sometimes carry away whole saplings. They construct elevated berms to protect the trees most vulnerable to flooding -- although they can do little to protect the trees once the waters rise. Last year's overflows from the Potomac killed 250 cherries.

And there are other threats. A man who has walked his dog around the basin for the past few weeks has inadvertently killed nine cherries by letting his dog bite and scratch the bark, tree workers say. Meanwhile, reckless drivers jump curbs and kill the trees by crashing into them.

The age of the cherries and their fragility pose a more immediate problem for the crews that climb them: These trees break. Although they are relatively small, reaching only about 25 feet, the trees tend to crack.

Alonzo McBryde still remembers the sound when a 100-pound tree limb fell -- with him on it. It was a long 10 feet down that day in 1989.

"All I could think on the way down was how scared I was," he says of the fall that left him with a fractured shoulder. "I was tied up in a cherry tree and the limb just went shoop. Head first. That's how I went down."

Tree workers, who earn about $25,000 to $35,000 a year, don't put on wedding rings because one could snag on a branch and take off their finger. They don't wear loose clothes or long hair for fear it could take off an even bigger body part. They don't go up a tree until they have figured out the best route up from the ground first. And, most of all, they don't spend too much time thinking about falling.

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