Cherry Blossom Festival celebrates nature, culture

March 24, 2010|By Mary Carole McCauley

Talk about being in the pink.

Despite February's record blizzards, the 3,700 cherry trees in Washington's Tidal Basin have been shaped and pruned into tip-top condition. And they're right on schedule to erupt in a froth of cotton-candy-colored petals during the 98th National Cherry Blossom Festival, which began March 27.

"There was a little bit more damage done to the branches this year because of the seven feet of snow we received this season," says Diana Mayhew, the Festival's president. "But the National Park Services staff has been working extremely hard to make sure that the trees are all pruned and well-conditioned. We've been told that by the time the blossoms open, you won't even know there was ever a storm."

A month ago, when the ground was covered in pyramids of gray-splattered snow, it was estimated that this year's peak bloom — defined as when 70 percent of the trees are in flower — would be a few days later than the annual average of April 4.

But, after a few weeks of temperatures in the 60s and 70s, that forecast was revised. Maximum bloom is now expected to be reached between April 1 and 4.

"The warm weather and the moisture in the ground really made them pop," Mayhew says.

That's good news for the one million visitors from the U.S. and around the world expected to take in the sight of graceful trees reflected in placid blue water. The festival, which runs through April 11, commemorates the gift in 1912 of 3,000 cherry trees from the mayor of Tokyo to the city of Washington.

And over the years, the annual spring festival has evolved into much more than merely a way to commune with Nature:

The opening ceremonies on March 27 at the National Building Museum, 401 N. First St. N.W. showcased examples of Western and Eastern culture. They will include a performance by the Washington Ballet, a play in the Japanese Noh repertoire, and the 30-year-old composer and pianist Tempei Nakamura performing classical and rock-infused melodies.

At 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 3, fireworks will light up the sky along the southwest waterfront, preceded by three hours of family activities and a musical prelude. The best viewing areas for the big boom will be at 6th and Water Streets SW and in East Potomac Park.

There will also be something to do after the sun sets -- the Cherry Blast, which is billed as a night of contemporary art, music and fashion, and scheduled for Friday, April 2.

"We're reaching out to a new, young, hip audience this year because we've been getting feedback that people wanted us to schedule evening events," Mayhew says.

The Blast will take place in a storage warehouse area, and the $10 admission price includes one alcoholic beverage. (I.D.s will be checked, and admission restricted to those aged 21 and older.)

In the so-called Cherry Lounge classical musician Matt Hemerlein will improvise with DJ Chris Nitti. Elsewhere, an interactive art experience called "Trance Tunnel" in which light is used to form architectural shapes will be operated by Batool Al-Shomrani , a graduate student at George Washington University. Partygoers can also watch artist Alexa Meade cover found objects with tempura paint.

The festivities will culminate on Saturday, April 10, with the annual parade. Officials have umm, cherry-picked, top local and national talent for the event; performers will include Justin Guarini, the first runner-up on the debut season of "American Idol"; rhythm and blues singer Deborah Cox, and the 2010 Miss America, Carissa Cameron or Richmond, Virginia.

The parade begins at 10 a.m. on April 10 and will run along Constitution Avenue from 7th St. to 17th Streets N.W. Tickets for grandstand seating cost $17, and can be bought at

While she might not have used these actual words, Mayhew hopes that visitors to the festival will be tickled pink by all the different activities.

"The 2010 festival closes on April 11, and we'll start planning next year's festival on April 12," she says.

"Each year I'm surprised at how the festival touches people differently and individually. When a woman from Iowa calls me every day because she's worried about how the cherry trees are doing – and she's not even going to attend the festival – that's what keeps me energized. When you see a child's face when he learns that his beautiful artwork will be displayed at Union Station, that's what makes it fun."

While you're there

For many visitors, the cherry on the top of the annual festival is the opportunity to explore Washington. Here are several activities you might want to check out during your visit:

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