Cherry Blossoms Ready to Bloom in D.C.

The Associated Press
Friday, March 30, 2007; 3:20 AM

WASHINGTON -- They have been lovingly groomed for the past three months, and next week all eyes will be on Washington's treasured cherry trees in anticipation of the few days when they burst into an irresistible sea of pale blossoms.

But as the trees perform the famous ritual that has drawn visitors for decades, officials are issuing friendly reminders about the harmful effects of snapping branches, climbing limbs and trampling the roots.

"It's a challenge _ they're here so people can come and see them," says Glenn Eugster, director of the National Park Service's cherry tree replacement fund program. "But the challenge is: How do you sustain the trees so we can continue to sustain the festival?"

The two-week National Cherry Blossom Festival, which begins Saturday, honors the anniversary of 3,000 cherry trees gifted from Japan to the United States in 1912. It has become Washington's signature tourist event, drawing 1 million visitors annually. And officials are well aware that the whole affair depends on the lush canopies of pink and white blossoms staying in pristine condition.

But not all visitors know that seemingly innocent actions can take a toll on the trees that line the Tidal Basin.

Each year, thousands of visitors spill off the paths and onto the dirt that houses the trees' life-giving roots, causing damage. Some climb the trees, or place their kids on the limbs for photos _ another no-no. And last year, a misdirected romantic display _ a young man who snapped off a branch of blossoms and presented it to his beau _ likely had the trees' tenders cringing.

"We want these trees to be around for our kids," says Diana Mayhew, the festival's executive director. "Some people are just not educated or informed. It's not that they're being mean, it's just that some people don't understand how special these trees are."

Robert DeFeo, the park service's chief horticulturist and bearer of the annual peak bloom date prediction, says many factors facing the urban tree can halve its natural lifespan of 100-plus years. Besides visitor abuse, pollution and warmth from pavements contribute to the shorter life span.

The trees in the most traversed areas have noticeably compacted soil, which DeFeo says prevents the roots from getting enough water and oxygen.

Still worse for the trees are people who take home little souvenirs of the park's treasures. DeFeo says the tree loses that blossoming branch, which only grows out of old wood. The resulting wound also makes the tree much more susceptible to disease and infestation.

Officials say 1 to 3 percent of the trees need replacement each year, at an average cost of $300 for a mature tree. Eugster, who runs the tree replacement fund, says that while Congress provides generous funding, donations are still needed.

It may not seem like a big deal if a few trees are missing here and there, but to him, "It would be a beautiful smile with missing teeth."

To help prevent further damage, the National Park Service for the first time is placing signs in tourist areas to remind people not to pick the blossoms. The signs feature "Paddles" the friendly beaver _ not to be confused with any of the three beavers that chomped 14 cherry trees around the Tidal Basin in 1999.

U.S. Park Police officers also monitor the area. Sgt. Robert Lachance, a police spokesman, says touching the flowers or breaking branches is considered destruction of government property. But he adds that officers use "an incredible amount of discretion" in enforcing the law, and that arrests are rare.

"We understand we get a lot of tourists from out of state and out of country," Lachance says. "And we try to use the lowest amount of punishment possible, whether it be a verbal warning, a fine or an arrest."

Perhaps Gary Matthews, of all people, should be the most upset about visitors damaging the trees. Matthews, who is retiring this year after 30 years with the park service, supervised one of two six-person crews this week as they wrapped up three months of pruning before next week's big show.

"It doesn't make me mad," he says. "It's a park, and parks get used. If they knew how much it hurt the tree, they probably wouldn't do it."

© 2007 The Associated Press