Knock On Wood By all indications Washington's cherry tress are blooming mixed up, but horticulturist Robert DeFeo still predicts they'll start peaking this weekend

March 16, 1998|By RICHARD O'MARA | RICHARD O'MARA,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Mysterious things are happening in the nation's capital, and they have nothing to do with the secret doings of special prosecutors and grand juries. But these are even grander events, and entirely deeper secrets.

Maybe it's El Nino, maybe it's sunspots. Whatever, it is a notable vernal confusion: The national cherry trees are out of sync.

The man commissioned to watch over these ancient gifts from the city of Tokyo to the people of the United States is a bit puzzled.

One of Robert DeFeo's many tasks is to forecast, using all his scientific knowledge and experience, when the cherry trees will reach their ultimate natural glory: full bloom. That has not been so easy this year.

"I've been out looking at the cherries," he says, "and what I'm seeing I've never seen since I've been doing this job."

DeFeo, 42, has been chief horticulturist of the National Capital Area for seven years. But he's been around Washington for 18 years, working first at the National Arboretum and later at the U.S. Botanic Garden.

His puzzlement has to do with the behavior of his "indicator tree." This is a single cherry tree among the thousands that ornament the Tidal Basin in front of the Jefferson Memorial. Other cherries enliven East and West Potomac Park, and the Washington Monument grounds.

The indicator -- DeFeo's not sure what type of cherry it is -- was in full bloom last week, blazing there by the Jefferson Memorial while all the other trees around the basin -- except one other eager outrider across the lake of khaki-colored water -- were still virtually bare.

DeFeo's indicator has been the most predictable of trees for him. Each year it blooms seven to 10 days before the legendary Yoshino cherry trees burst forth. The Yoshinos are the wonders of nature and creative hybridization that each year ring the Tidal Basin with a halo of white clouds. Their glory lasts about 10 days to two weeks. About 750,000 people come to Washington to experience it, according to Jackie Wolfe, president of the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival. It is a far, far bigger thing than Bill and Monica, and it happens every year.

The relationship between DeFeo's single indicator tree and all the others has always been nothing but regular, consistent, unwavering. "The construction people working on the roads by the Jefferson Memorial were told that 'when you see that tree bloom you'll be shutting down 10 days later to make way for the crowds,' " DeFeo says.

But this year, the indicator went haywire. It began to bloom March 1, but the Yoshinos did not follow along. Their blossoms will be coming early this year, to be sure, but they are not keeping up with the indicator tree.

"I can't explain it," says the horticulturist. "This year the indicator is 21 days ahead."

He suspects that maybe this tree was more responsive to the 10-to-14-day stretch during February when the temperature never dipped below 40 degrees, and the Yoshinos were less responsive, for reasons only they know.

But DeFeo's forecast for the Yoshinos holds -- they'll be in full flower Saturday -- and that's what everybody is most interested in. That's why reporters from newspapers and TV stations have been calling up and assembling downstairs at the National Park Service Headquarters in East Potomac Park, particularly last week when the cold snap threatened to turn billions upon billions white and pinkish cherry blossoms into shriveled brown pieces.

DeFeo clearly doesn't mind all the attention he gets this time of the year. But he is eager to explain that he usually has more on his mind than cherry trees. "This isn't all I do, you know. It's only a small part. I have to keep track of other trees."

These include all the oaks and conifers and American elms, ash and magnolias, the tulip trees and tulip beds, and everything else that grows in 12 parks spinkled like an archipelago through the District of Columbia, and extending out into Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, from the Catoctin Mountains to Harpers Ferry. They encompass 70,000 acres.

Flowers for the festival

If DeFeo is correct with his Saturday prediction, the great unveiling of cherry blossom brilliance will come earlier than last year -- earlier in fact than 73 of the 77 years since the Cherry Blossom Festivals began in 1921, when they started keeping records.

Most years the festival dates capture the flowering dates. This year's festival runs from March 29through April 12. The blossoms should still be around when the festivities begin, if not when they end. (In 1990, the cherries blossomed on March 15, the earliest in their history, and most were gone when the festival began.)

Full bloom technically means that 70 percent of the blossoms have unfolded. Each blossom usually lasts four to 10 days, depending on the temperature. They can last up to two weeks.

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