WASHINGTON'S surest sign of spring is here. And, once again, it's way ahead of schedule. Coaxed by the sun and unseasonably warm days, the area's cherry trees have been bursting in their pale pink splendor.
Never mind the magnificent magnolias, the fiery forsythias, and the pretty pear trees now flowering all over. The gnarly trunked cherry trees draw the most tourists.
Street vendors say that the White House, the Capitol, even the national museums become side-shows around this time of year. Motorists have been suffering through some of this town's worst traffic jams to twist their necks for a view of the trees, a gift of the Japanese government.
But by the time the Cherry Queen waves from her float in the Cherry Blossom Festival parade next Saturday, most of the petals will have dropped from the trees like snow. Down in front of the Jefferson Memorial, the tidal basin's cherry blossoms hit their peak last week.
What many locals know but might not tell you is that they have a secret stash, just a few miles north across the Maryland border in one of the metropolitan area's toniest neighborhoods. Kenwood, a collection of palatial homes perched on rolling green lawns, is home to some 3,000 trees planted by its developers 65 years ago. The cherry blossoms there are still in bud form, and promise at least another few days of peak beauty.
Increasingly, the word seems to be getting out, much to the upset of some longtime residents who don't appreciate the constant flow of traffic. Kenwood, which once had covenants barring selected minorities from residency and still employs a 24-hour guard service to cruise its environs, is teeming with visitors who picnic on their lawns, climb their trees, and pose for photographs on their front stoops. In recent days, Kenwood's streets were packed with cars and pedestrians.
All of these folks need refreshment, figures Eli Berman, purveyor of E & J Snacks. Eli, a freckled red-head, is just one of many elementary school-kids-cum-entrepreneurs who market their wares at strategic points in the neighborhood. He and his colleagues look with anticipation as families stroll past and cars inch along.
They must sell some of their lemonade, ginger snaps, and other goodies because other kids in nearby neighborhoods have heard of their success. Their parents drive them over in hatchbacks to unload sales tables and thermoses full of juice.
A bus from the First Baptist Church of Alexandria passes slowly down Kenwood's lanes, pausing here and there for a window tour. But no full stop. So Eli considers moving his site.
The Good Humor truck parked along Kenwood's grassy circle is tough competition. ''By mid-week, this place will be really full,'' says Good Humor man Tony Davis, who does his biggest business this time of year.
And there are lots of Japanese. Among them are Shige and Machiko Yoshida, a young couple who just moved to Virgina from Japan. ''We have Cherry trees in Tokyo, but nothing on this scale,'' marvels Mr. Yoshida. He didn't go to the Tidal Basin; he came straight here, after hearing about Kenwood from other Japanese friends. Eli's first customer is an Indian woman from Laurel, a suburb in another Maryland county. In the next few days she's expecting eight of her relatives to visit from New Jersey. They are coming to see the blossoms. They will, no doubut, picnic in Kenwood.