By Lauren Wanko
A massive array of colorful cherry blossoms gently sways in the wind and covers the grass with a bed of pink and white petals.
“The cherry blossoms are the first, one of the very first trees to flower and leaf out in the spring so its really is a symbol that we’re returning to the outdoors,” said Kate Hartwyk, director of the Essex County Division of Cultural and Historical Affairs.
Today’s chilly temperatures didn’t stop tourists from visiting Essex County’s Branch Brook Park to snap pictures of their impressive collection of cherry blossoms.
“The cherry blossom collection here in Branch Brook Park is the most diverse collection and the largest collection in the nation,” Hartwyk said.
Last year there were 4,000 cherry blossom trees in the park — 28 different varieties. The county’s adding another 1,000 this year. A machine was digging a hole for one of the new trees. As they’re added, dead trees are marked and taken out. Crews will be planting throughout the spring.
“They have to work with the weather conditions. The ground has to be a certain temperature for the cherry trees to survive the plantings,” Hartwyk said.
A team of Essex County Master Gardener volunteers maintains the collection at the park. They come out weekly to maintain and inspect the trees. There are single and double blossom trees within the park. The singles are already blooming. That lasts about 10 days.
Essex County’s cherry blossom history began in the 1920s with a Newark resident.
“They were a gift … in 1928. She was inspired by the Japanese gift to Washington, D.C. and wanted to have some closer to home,” Hartwyk said. “She wrote to Washington, D.C. to the National Arboretum to ask them if they would provide seedlings to start the collection.”
And what did they say?
“No! They declined. So she ended up going to other local nurseries to get seedlings,” Katie ??? said.
Today the original collection — nearly 2,000 trees — is small. The ornamental trees live about 80 years. A 2006 county survey determined a large percentage of the cherry tree collection was in failing health. It had dwindled to about 800 trees.
“So at that point, our county executive, Joe DiVincenzo, brought in a whole team of historic landscapers to determine where best to plant trees according to the homestead design of the park and we began a campaign in the community and with corporations to raise money,” Hartwyk said.
Dubbed Cherry Blossom Land, the park attracts tens of thousands of people each year.
“I love them. They are beautiful trees. And they’re supposed to be very lucky,” said Hasbrouck Heights resident Alvaro Rueda.
“There’s a Japanese tradition called Hanami. It’s a viewing of cherry blossoms. It brings good luck for the rest of the year to come and picnic under a cherry blossom tree so we do get a large Asian population that comes out to continue that tradition from the homeland,” Katie ??? said.
“I’ve never seen so many cherry blossoms in one place,” said Maywood resident Peggy Lawton.
Ninety-nine-year-old Lawton is visiting the park for the first time.
“It’s spectacular! It’s unreal,” she said.
The double blossom trees are expected to start blooming this weekend.