WASHINGTON – Washingtonians and visitors take note: there is plenty of time to stop and smell the cherry blossoms.
National Park Service horticulturalists predict that the peak bloom,which is when 70 percent of the blossoms are open,will begin Sunday and end April 10.
The 92nd annual National Cherry Blossom Festival,which includes a parade and more than 200 other events,starts Saturday and runs through April 11.
Bill Line,a communications officer at the National Park Service,said many people have the misconception that they have only one chance to see the capital's famous trees at peak.
“Even though April 4 is the average peak bloom,that does not mean all the sudden,oh my God,April 4 they all come out at 6 a.m. and then at midnight they all fall off,” Line said. “There is a whole range of days. Days. Plural. They're all going to be very good.”
The festival marks “the start of Washington's tourism season,” said Victoria Isley,vice president of marketing and communications for the Washington,D.C.,Convention and Tourism Corp.
With 5.2 million visitors to the nation's capital in spring 2002,the most recent year for which data is available,it's a good thing there is more than one day to see the blossoms. Over the course of a year,Isley said about 19 million people visit the city.
“There are hotels that put together great marketing opportunities and experiences,” Isley said about how the city caters to tourists during the cherry blossom festival. “There are restaurants that participate as well,by offering ‘cherry picks,' with chefs creating signature items.”
Recent cold weather pushed back the original predicted peak date from Wednesday to Sunday,but Line said the bloom is “not necessarily late,but should be right on time.” He said one reason the National Cherry Blossom Festival is two weeks long is to make it more likely that the flowers and the festival coincide.
Park Service horticulturalists pay strict attention to the weather,Line said.
“Barring any strong winds and/or penetrating or piercing rain,we believe a large number of blossoms will remain on the trees through April 10,” Line said.
Isley said the tourism office gets many phone calls about the festival from visitors who want to plan a trip during the peak bloom.
The festival celebrates about 3,750 trees in three primary locations: the Tidal Basin,East Potomac Park and the Washington Monument grounds,Line said.
The Yoshino tree,which tends to have a “slightly pale pink,almost white fluffy blossom,” is the most common out of about a dozen species,he said.
A very warm February and March caused the earliest peak bloom to occur March 15,1990. And 32 years before that – April 18,1958 – is the latest bloom recorded.
This year's peak prediction moved a few days because of recent cold overnight temperatures. But Line said the Park Service has no record of the cherry blossoms ever freezing. He said the blossoms contain a low percentage of water,making it unlikely they will freeze.
“The big magnolia trees have been predicted to freeze,and they'll start to turn brown,” Line said,comparing the fate of magnolias to cherry blossoms. “Magnolia blossoms have a very high water content in them,and water is what freezes.”
A number of the original cherry trees donated by Japan in 1912 were diseased and had bugs in them,Line said. And with the average life of a flowering cherry tree being 60 years,Line said it is not surprising that the majority of trees are not originals. The Park Service believes two trees along the north side of the Tidal Basin are originals,he said.
The National Park Service did not take over the responsibility for the cherry trees until about the mid-1930s,Line said. Today,a 14-person crew of arborists is responsible for the trees,pruning them several times a year,“the main function or duty the tree crews perform that helps perpetuate those trees as long as they can,” Line said.
Another crew that works year-round is the one planning the annual festival.
Diana Mayhew,executive director of the festival,said the festival staff will start working on next year's festival as soon as this one ends. She said more than 1,000 volunteers help the two-week festival run smoothly.
The year before last was the best attended festival,with nearly 1 million people,but last year's numbers were down because of the Iraq war,Mayhew said. She said she expects attendance to be back up to about 1 million this year.
“There's an incredible response with all events,” Mayhew said,referring to the more than 60 events and more than 150 performances and demonstrations.
The parade and a Japanese street festival,both April 3,corral the largest crowds, Mayhew said.
This year's festival also marks the 150th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the United States and Japan with the Treaty of Peace and Amity of 1854.
To find out more information about this year's festival,visit www.nationalcherryblossomfestival.org.