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Spring is here -- cherry blossoms bloom in Washington

Cherry blossoms begin to bloom along the Bolling waterfront. (U.S. Air Force photo by Thomas Dennis.)

Cherry blossoms begin to bloom along the Bolling waterfront. (U.S. Air Force photo by Thomas Dennis.)

BOLLING AFB, D.C. -- It's official. Spring has arrived in Washington, D.C.

The calendar said it came a week ago. Major League Baseball says it will start locally when the Washington Nationals open their 2008 season - and their new ballpark - in a few days against the Atlanta Braves.

Both Pope Gregory XIII (whom the Gregorian calendar is named for) nor Bud Selig (MLB commissioner) really have it right.

Any self-respecting Washingtonian knows spring arrives not in the turn of a calendar page or in the shouting of "Play Ball!" but in a burst of pink and white when the cherry blossoms bloom.

These delicate blossoms started appearing early this week along Washington's Tidal Basin and on Bolling Air Force Base. Seeing first hand the cherry blossom-lined basin, Jefferson Memorial and East Potomac Park is an event legions of people eagerly await each spring. It's something Bolling Airmen should experience at least once during their assignment.

The National Cherry Blossom Festival celebration begins March 29 and runs through April 13. The annual parade is set for 10 a.m. April 12, between 7th and 17th streets on Constitution Avenue.

There are more activities than simply blossoms and a parade. A few of the other events include park ranger-guided strolls and runs among the blossoms, night time walks, photographic safaris, cultural performances and concerts, fireworks, anime film festival, 10-mile run and kite festival. A complete listing of events is located at the NCBF Website (www.nationalcherryblossomfestival.org).

National Park Service officials predict the blossoms' will peak between March 27 and April 3. After that, this unique Washington spring occurrence fades away as the approximately 3,700 cherry trees drop their delicate petals.

The blossoms have been a Washington tradition since 1912. Tokyo Mayor Yuko Ozaki sent more than 3,000 cherry trees to the nation's capital "to enhance the growing friendship between the United States and Japan and celebrate the continued close relationship between our two peoples," according to the NCBF Website.

The concept of nations exchanging gifts does seem odd, as George Costanza contemplated with Jerry in "The Red Dot" episode of "Seinfeld":

George: Why did France give that to us anyway?
Jerry: It was a gift.
George: So countries just exchange gifts like that?
Jerry: If they like each other.

Setting the whimsical philosophical point aside, Japan's gift to Washington draws people from around the world. Approximately 1 million people will visit the blossoms this year, according to NCBF organizers.

The idea for the flowering cherry trees in Washington came up long before Japan's gift. Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore conceived the idea following a trip to Japan in 1885, according to the NPS Web site (www.nps.gov/nama/planyourvisit/cherry-blossom-history.htm). For the next 24 years, she brought the idea to a succession of superintendents of Public Building and Grounds. She didn't find success until writing a letter to first lady Helen Taft, wife of President William Howard Taft. The first lady had once lived in Japan.

The first 2,000 trees from Japan arrived in 1910. Sadly, agricultural inspectors discovered insects and disease infecting the trees and all were burned.

A follow-up shipment of more than 3,000 trees left Japan Feb. 14, 1912, and arrived in Washington via Seattle March 26.

Ms. Taft and the wife of the Japanese ambassador to the United States, Vicountess Chinda, planted the first trees. NPS officials say these trees are still living and are located "several hundred yards west of the John Paul Jones statue at the south end of 17th Street."

New York City may have its Statue of Liberty, but it's always going to be there. Washington's cherry blossoms are here for only a short time each year before they fade. Missing the blossoms brings to mind a classic baseball refrain - "Wait'll next year."