Blooming with history

Focus On Cherry Blossoms

March 24, 2002|By Graphic and Story By Denise Murray | Graphic and Story By Denise Murray,SUN STAFF

Although it has long been one of the premiere spring events in the nation's capital, the National Cherry Blossom Festival kicks off its two-week run this weekend with added meaning.

Not only does the celebration mark the 90th anniversary of Japan's gift of 3,020 cherry trees to the people of the United States, but its arrival couldn't be better timed: A city whose collective psyche - and tourism industry - were wounded by the Sept. 11 attacks and last fall's anthrax scare could use a little natural splendor right about now.

"People are looking forward to celebrating this year," says Diana Mayhew, executive director of the nonprofit organization that runs the event. "The various entities of this city are really pulling together to create an event."

Washingtonians bear no shortage of pride in their cherry trees and the gorgeous pink-and-white show they create each spring around the Tidal Basin. In a city of monuments, theirs may be the showiest display of all.

The only question is whether the festival's stars - the famed Yoshino cherry trees - will be looking their best for the big event.

Despite a mild, dry winter, the National Park Service forecast is for the peak bloom to arrive between April 1 and April 5. Since the average date is April 4, that makes this year fairly typical.

The best viewing will probably begin in the next several days and continue until about the time the festival wraps up on April 8.

Robert DeFeo, a park service horticulturist and chief cherry-bud-watcher, says the weather could still have an impact on the blooms. Warm, dry days and mild nights could cause the trees to blossom sooner than predicted.

"When there's not much difference between the daytime temperature and the night, that really gets the cherries moving," he says.

The trees on the Mall now are not the first to be sent to Washington. In 1910, Japan donated 2,000 cherry blossoms to the United States as a symbol of friendship. But they were discovered to be diseased or infested with insects and had to be burned.

Japan subsequently sent 3,020 cuttings from trees along the banks of the Arakawa River, on the outskirts of Tokyo. Visitors who want to see the city's oldest cherry trees should visit the north bank of the basin, near 17th street and just west of the John Paul Jones statue. These two trees, identified by a bronze plaque, were planted on March 27, 1912, by first lady Helen Taft and Viscountess Chinida, wife of the Japanese ambassador.

It took seven years for all the trees to be planted. Besides the Yoshino trees, 12 other varieties have been planted, not only at the basin, but also near the Jefferson Memorial, on the White House grounds and in East and West Potomac Parks.

In 1952, the United States made shipments of grafts from these trees to Japan to help restore cherry trees destroyed during World War II.

Sun staff writer Peter Jensen contributed to this article.

Festival highlights

The district's Cherry Blossom Festival runs through April 8. Here are some highlights:

Performances on the Tidal Basin Stage at the steps of the Jefferson Memorial. Today and daily through April 7, noon-1:30 p.m. Music, dance, demonstrations. Free.

Ranger-guided walking tours of the cherry trees, starting at the FDR Memorial on the Tidal Basin. Today and daily at 10 a.m., 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. Free.

Visit schooner Amistad, docked at Southwest waterfront. Seminars, day sails, tours, mock trials. Today through April 7.

Grand sushi and sake tasting at Madison Hotel, 1177 15th St. N.W. Largest sushi bar in D.C. will be created by 30 master chefs. April 3, 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets are $38 in advance. Proceeds benefit a fund to maintain the city's cherry trees.

The Cherry Blossom Queen is crowned at a black-tie dinner at the JW Marriott, 1331 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W. April 5. Tickets are $125.

Sakura Matsuri, a street festival of Japanese arts and culture presented by Japan America Society. April 6, noon. 12th St. between Constitution and Pennsylvania avenues.

National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade. April 6, 9:30 a.m. Constitution Avenue between Seventh and 17th streets.

Parade of lighted boats. Best viewing is from East Potomac Park. April 6, 8 p.m. Brightly decorated boats will be led by the presidential yacht Sequoia. Free.

For a complete listing of events, times and dates, see www.nationalcherryblossomfestival.org or call the festival's hot line, 202-547-1500. For additional information from the National Park Service, see www.nps.gov/nacc/cherry or call 410-426-6841.

Planting tips

Has a visit to the National Cherry Blossom Festival inspired you to plant a Yoshino (Prunus x yedoensis) or other variety of ornamental cherry in your own backyard? Here are some tips:

Be sure to give them room. Mature specimens grow to 20-30 feet wide and up to 50 feet tall.

Select a spot with moist, well-drained soil and full sun.

Plant in Zones 5-8 (on the east coast, that's north Florida to coastal Maine).

Trees should be pruned yearly while dormant to remove diseased wood and poorly placed branches.

Researcher: Paul McCardell

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