Cherry blossoms'soft whisper of spring

Festivals abound as the colorful trees burst into bloom

For many of us still buried in snow, springtime seems like a distant dream. Not so in Macon, Ga. There, nature is putting on a different performance altogether.

"The cherry trees are popping like popcorn as we speak," effuses Carolyn Crayton, founder of that city's annual Cherry Blossom Festival, which begins tomorrow and continues through March 25. Last year, this celebration drew 700,000 participants to its 500 events, and this year, with much of the nation craving spring more than a Survivor star craves Mom's home cooking, it could be bigger than ever.

But, of course, snow-weary Americans have many choices when it comes to ogling spring's cherry blossoms. Festivals are also held in San Francisco, Seattle, Brooklyn, N.Y., and, most prominently, Washington, D.C. Although Washington has only 3,700 trees compared with Macon's 250,000, it is America's best-known destination for viewing this natural explosion of pink and white.

A gift to the nation's capital

The tradition began on Valentine's Day in 1912 when Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki gave 3,000 cherry trees of 12 varieties to the city of Washington as an act of friendship. First lady Helen Herron Taft and Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador, then planted the first two of these trees in Potomac Park.

In Japan, the fleeting beauty of the cherry blossom, which scatters just a few days after flowering, is considered a reminder to take time to appreciate life. Viewing began in ancient times when aristocrats wrote poetry and sang songs under flowering trees.

Today, friends and family gather during the bloom for picnics. Cherry trees are so numerous in Japan that they have a name for the wave of color seen from the sky - sakura zensen, or, literally, "cherry blossom front."

Barbara Erlich, who is a full-time volunteer on the board of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, has made several trips to Japan to visit the friends she has made over the years. "We are keeping alive that gift of friendship," she says, adding that what she most enjoys about the Washington festival is "seeing the Japanese people's reaction. It gives them so much joy to see us Americans celebrating their gift every year."

Weather affects timing

Fortunately, America's cherry trees appear untouched by this winter's extreme weather. In Washington, horticulturist Robert deFeo predicts that the bloom will peak from March 31 to April 5. "But that's just a guess," he says. "Not until about seven to 10 days before, will I really be able to nail it."

For the most accurate prediction right up until the festival kickoff on March 25, Mr. deFeo suggests tracking the bloom on the festival's official website (www. nationalcherryblossomfestival.org). At press time, the bud was in its "green" phase, which is resilient to late-winter frost and even temperatures as low as 10 degrees. The only time frost can hurt these hardy trees, deFeo adds, is when it strikes just before bloom.

In Macon, the fact that cherry trees are already blooming means that there won't be a repeat performance of last year when the azaleas, dogwoods, and cherry trees all burst forth simultaneously. "That was the most beautiful year we've ever had," recalls William Fickling III, whose grandfather planted Macon's first cherry trees in 1952 and soon after, started the city's tradition of giving them away.

As Mr. Fickling sits in his den while we talk by phone, he gazes out the window at those first blooms on his grandfather's six-acre estate. The last remaining tree is "really pushing it," he observes. The lifespan of most cherry trees is only about 20 to 30 years. Fickling keeps the family tradition alive with about 100 trees on the lot around his house and 1,000 more on the nearby family farm.

White or pink blossoms

Most cherry tree aficionados are partial to the Yoshino cherry tree (Prunus x yedoensis), with its round top, wide spread, and white flowers that grow in clusters of two to five. (There's a pink form, too.)

But Fickling is also a fan of Kwanzan cherries (Prunus serrulata 'Kwanzan'), which his granddad also planted, and which bloom about two weeks later than the Yoshinos. "The Kwanzan's light pink, double blossom is even more beautiful than the Yoshino blossom," he says.

In addition, Kwanzan is among the hardiest of the ornamental cherries.

Also popular with homeowners is the graceful weeping Higan cherry (Prunus subhirtella 'Pendula'), which has single pink blooms. In Washington, these bloom about one week before the Yoshinos.

Like bringing home a film container of sand from a tropical vacation, many springtime visitors to Macon want to tote home a cherry tree of their own. And, with typical Southern hospitality, festival organizers oblige with not one, but two trees per request.

"Over the years, we have given away a total of 256,000 trees!" says Crayton. But they're not handed out on the spot. Names are added to a list and people pick them up, along with planting instructions, during the first week of December.

The trees can grow in places as cool as New York (a grove thrives just behind the Metropolitan Museum) and as unusual as a mountainside in northern Japan, but they won't bloom any farther south than Macon, says Crayton.

Of course, Macon residents get first dibs on the free trees.

"We're not called the 'Cherry Tree Capital of the World' for nothing," Crayton says." They grow along the Interstate, at hospitals, on college campuses...." Then, showing a flair of that famous hospitality herself, Crayton adds, "Oh, please come and see them for yourself!"

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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