By Young Soo Yang
Every year, people from all over the world time their visit to our nation’s capital to coincide with the National Cherry Blossom Festival. The famous blooms, which create a profusion of pink along the Tidal Basin and the banks of the Potomac River, never fail to delight the throngs of camera-toting visitors.
This year’s celebration holds special meaning due to the 100-year commemoration of when the Japanese gift of over 3000 trees arrived in the United States on March 26, 1912.
But New Jerseyans need not travel south to admire this annual rite of spring. Essex County hosts its own cherry blossom festival every year.
We conducted a Q & A with Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo via email about the park’s collection and this year’s planned activities.
Q: Prior to the gift from Japan, did cherry blossom trees exist in New Jersey?
DiVincenzo: While the original gift of cherry trees from Japan to the United States was made in 1912, it was not until 1927 that the trees debuted in Essex County Branch Brook Park. Caroline Bamberger Feld was so impressed with the display in the nation’s capitol that she brought the trees to Essex County in 1927. Her original gift of 2,000 trees started the famed collect in Essex County Branch Brook Park that now is the single site in the world with the largest variety of cherry trees (14 varieties) and the largest number of trees in a single location (4,300 trees).
Q: What’s the significance of the gift?
DiVincenzo: The gift is significant on several levels. First, it links the Essex County and Japanese communities together across many thousands of miles, and promotes Japanese culture and traditions here. Essex County has a very diverse population and any awareness about this diversity helps promote understanding and unity among our residents. Secondly, the original gift has grown into an annual attraction that draws hundreds of thousands of people to Essex County every spring. The blooming of the trees and the Essex County Cherry Blossom Festival, now in its 36th year, contributes to the local economy by attracting people to the area. They, in turn, spend money in Essex that helps with economic development and support for local businesses.
Q: What is the importance of these trees to the Japanese?
DiVincenzo: Cherry blossoms have a great deal of symbolism in Japanese culture. Long ago, the short blooming season signified the fleeting nature and beauty of life. Today, the blooming of the blossoms are a time to celebrate. In Branch Brook Park, it is not uncommon to see families picnicking among the trees and taking pictures of their families, which has become a tradition.
Q: How many varieties are there? And which ones can be found at Branch Brook Park?
DiVincenzo: There are more than 40 different varieties of ornamental cherry blossom trees. In Essex County Branch Brook Park, there are 14 varieties of trees. This variety of species lengthens the bloom season to 4-5 weeks.
Q: Why do you think these trees are so popular? People travel to Washington, D.C. annually for the festival. And I’m guessing these trees are quite the draw at Branch Brook Park.
DiVincenzo: Essex County Branch Brook Park is a beloved natural resource and open space in and of itself. For many, the park is like their backyard. It’s where friends socialize, families vacation and people get involved in community activities like recreation leagues. The cherry blossoms add to the allure of the park and give more people a reason to come out and enjoy nature. It is not uncommon to see groups of people having a picnic or taking family pictures among the tree groves.
Q: What is the Park doing to recognize the centennial?
DiVincenzo: Essex County is acknowledging the 100th anniversary of the cherry blossom gift to Washington D.C. in our regular Cherry Blossom Festival activities.
Q: Are any of the original “gifted” trees still in existence?
DiVincenzo:Yes, some of the original trees still exist, however, five years ago it was discovered that the original collection had decreased to less than 900 trees. Through an aggressive planting program spearheaded by [my office] and the Branch Brook Park Alliance, the number of trees has rebounded and now stands at 4,300 trees – more than the national display in Washington D.C.
Q: How have the mild winter and colds snaps affected the blooms?
DiVincenzo: The mild weather has caused the bloom season to arrive at least three weeks earlier than normal. The peak season usually occurs during the second and third weeks of April, however this year it occurred in the third and fourth weeks of March. The weather has cooled recently, so the late blooming varieties have not bloomed yet. We anticipate those varieties to bloom in April as they have in the past. Although the trees will be past their blooming period when the Cherry Blossom Festival arrives, we are inviting the public to experience the beauty of the trees twice – come once to see the trees in bloom and come a second time to enjoy the festival events.
For more information about the Cherry Blossom Festival 2012, visit the Essex County website at www.essexcountynj.org.