The scattering bloom

Turns into torn waste-paper,

And a bamboo broom . . .

-- Buson

It was Eliza Scidmore's idea.

She had visited her brother, the American consul at Yokohama, and she vividly remembered the famous cherry orchard of the emperor of Japan. In 1900, when the city decided to decorate the swampy flatlands of East Potomac Park, newly reclaimed from the river, Scidmore suggested Japanese cherry trees.

She asked some friends of hers who knew Japan if they would help donate money for 100 trees a year. One of the first to respond was Mrs. William Howard Taft, who had lived in Yokohama, too.

That year the women bought and planted 80 trees, all they could find in America. Then, according to an article in The Washington Post by Eleanor Roosevelt, "a Japanese chemist offered 2,000 trees, to be given in the name of the city of Tokyo." But the trees, shipped in 1910 via Seattle and rushed here in refrigerator cars, were infected with scale and had to be burned.

This disaster stirred the mayor of Tokyo, Yukio Ozaki, to action. "The destruction of cherry trees is an old American custom," he muttered. "It goes back to George Washington." He had thousands of slips from the Mikado's garden grafted onto some wild cherries that had been planted in specially prepared soil in Tokyo.

Years passed. At last the trees were ready, and 3,000 of them were sent to Washington, a dozen varieties that would bloom in succession from early April to mid-May.

On March 27, 1912, Helen Taft -- by now the first lady -- and the Japanese ambassador's wife, Vice Countess Iwa Chinda, each planted a tree to start off the new batch. They were early-blooming Yoshinos, and they still stand beside a 300-year-old Japanese granite lantern near the Kutz Bridge at the Tidal Basin.

The prediction is: first bloom by tomorrow or Thursday, full bloom by Easter.

"It happens so quickly, like a fit of passion," observed the National Park Service's Earle Kittleman. "When they all come out it's like a MIRV . . . no, that's not right. Like a big firework."

To the Japanese, the brief, exquisite glory of the petals and their heartbreaking fragility are reminders of life's poignant, fleeting beauty.

Over the years, trees have come and gone. Nearly all of the original ones have been replaced, though they live on through grafts. New treelets are planted in the 3,500 sites as gnarled veterans die, and today most of them are of three varieties: Yoshino, whose single white blossoms are the first to appear; Kwanzan, with double white blooms; and the pinkish Akibono. The Yoshinos stand mainly in the Tidal Basin, with some along East Potomac Park, where the Kwanzans are concentrated. The Akibonos are interspersed among them.

There are still surprises.

"We had one tree up by the Capitol that bloomed last January," said Kittleman, "after that warm December. People thought it meant all the trees would start, but it's a fall-blooming variety, a different tree entirely." There are a few of these Prunus autumnalis around the Capitol and the Botanic Gardens, and a handful of weeping cherry trees near Hains Point.

In the early stages, he added, the Yoshino looks pink as the bud tips begin to open, but quickly fades to white. Kittleman and William Anderson, the NPS regional chief scientist, have been keeping a sharp watch on the buds, especially on the older trees on the islet side of the basin, south of the Jefferson Memorial, that bloom before the others.

"They're coming along real well," he said Wednesday. "The floret stems are extended, which means they should be out early this year, I'd say March 27 or 28. We might have the whole Tidal Basin in blossom by the first of April if the weather is warm. The cold doesn't bother them, but you can have problems if you get a lot of warm weather in the dead of winter."

By the next day a number of the florets were fully extended, "ready to go," as Anderson said. It takes a few days for the blooms to reach their peak. Each bud has four or five floret stems, and each stem bursts out with several petals.

Yesterday Kittleman toured the Tidal Basin once again, noting that pink was showing everywhere on trees, especially around the Washington Monument. "In fact, Washington itself is budding out all over," he said. "The grass is getting that lime green look. The weekend rain helped bring everything along, of course."

Since 1921, when records began to be kept, the date of full peak blooming (with 70 percent of the trees going all out) has ranged from March 20 to April 15. Last year it came on April 9. The average date is around April 5. The Yoshinos bloom for about 10 days or less, the Kwanzans tend to start two weeks later and last 15 days. This year, Kittleman said, it looks as if the Cherry Blossom Festival, April 7-13, could come a tad late.

The main event of the festival will be, as usual, the annual parade, which will file through the city at 12:30 p.m. on the 13th, sponsored by the Downtown Jaycees and duly televised. The Cherry Blossom Queen and her 55 attendants, chosen from all 50 states, territories and the District of Columbia, will be the top attraction, but various other events, including a concert at the Kennedy Center, will keep visitors occupied during the week.

The parade is traditionally Washington's biggest outdoor celebration, and the crowds it draws are easily the most irritating to natives, for visitors collect along the Tidal Basin day after day, night after night, their cars and campers inching past the blossoming trees at 2 miles an hour, and pedestrians crossing and recrossing the streets in unwary, reverent bunches.

Washingtonians learn not to drive anywhere near the area, but occasionally one forgets, and so is forced to view the dazzling sight. At night, the entire region is so brilliantly lit it looks like a magic snowscape, a childhood dream of Christmas.

In the early years, the festival featured a water pageant on the basin, band concerts, a light-opera presentation and what the newspapers called "military exhibitions," which conjure up visions of Red Square on May Day. In any case, the festival regularly draws as many as 500,000 tourists to the city.

Some of these are vandals. Every year flower thieves wrench loose a sprig or two each, ignoring the fact that if the delicate petals don't drop off in the process they will die anyway in a matter of hours.

"It's worse when the weather is great," said Kittleman. "You get a nice weekend with everybody out, and you get the vandals. The trees . . . are carefully pruned every year to make the best display. If a tree looks ragged, with branches straying out, it tempts vandals."

Vandals had their biggest year in 1942. Late on the night of Dec. 10, just three days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Tidal Basin lights went out briefly. During that time, somebody cut down four trees with a handsaw and wrote "To hell with the Japanese" on a stump. Two of the four were originals from 1912.

Parks Superintendent Irving C. Root deplored the work of these "misguided individuals," who were probably youths, he said, and urged that citizens help guard the trees against further damage. Someone compared the act to the mistreatment of dachshunds in this country during World War I.

Given the atmosphere of the times, however, it seems understandable. In the days after Pearl Harbor, the Freer Gallery of Art took all Japanese artworks off its shelves and walls, and the dime stores withdrew all Japanese merchandise. In those days "made in Japan" was a synonym for gimcrack.

During the war, of course, the festival was canceled. Not only were the trees themselves in the doghouse -- the very word "Japanese" was dropped and they were carefully called "Washington's cherry trees" -- but the last thing overcrowded Washington wanted was an invasion of a half-million tourists.

Besides, Potomac Park was covered with temporary buildings for war agencies, and the polo field was a parking lot.

The festival, which had been established in 1934 with a three-day celebration, was resumed in 1947 and has been going strong ever since.

The trees had had an earlier scare in 1938, when contractors uprooted several of them to make way for the new Jefferson Memorial. That time, some 150 clubwomen chained themselves to the trees to save them and sat in the holes left by the few already removed. President Roosevelt refused to halt the memorial plans, leaving the situation up to Congress.

The solution was a compromise: The uprooted trees were planted elsewhere, and 1,000 more were added to the area. At the time there were only 1,700 trees standing, according to FDR, but he was accused of having his figures wrong. Since 40 to 50 are replanted every year, and it depends whether you are counting all the varieties and all the sites around town, or just the Tidal Basin trees, tree counts have tended to be rather unreliable. What we know for certain is that there are 3,500 slots.

A decade ago the Newark, N.J., cherry blossom committee challenged the capital to what it called a "war" to determine which city had the prettier cherry trees. Newark has 4,000 trees and a festival to go with them. The Downtown Jaycees refused. "This is not the kind of silly thing we do," their president sniffed.

Washington loves to tell itself it is a blase' international metropolis. Just don't mess with the cherry trees.