'Cherrybration Days': Tourism council promotes fundraising and a good time

When you combine celebration and cherry blossoms, what do you get? If you answered "Cherry Blossom Festival," you've got the right idea — you're just off by about 30 miles.

Merging those words in Howard County means Cherrybration Days are here, and there is a month's worth of ways to mark the peak time for the 1,600 cherry trees that will be in bloom across the county next week, in the midst of this year's 100th anniversary celebration in Washington.

The county's tourism council is mounting a "Branch Out" campaign in hopes of boosting spring visitation numbers this year by enticing travelers who can't get enough of the 3,750 cherry trees in 16 varieties that are in bloom at the Tidal Basin during the five-week National Cherry Blossom Festival.

A short drive up I-95 to Howard County allows D.C. sightseers to extend their arboreal experience by joining with local residents to view the Kwanzan cherry trees, a late-blooming variety with double pink flowers. They can then stay on to participate in pink-themed events that range from a pink-champagne fashion show to "pink-plate specials" at area restaurants, organizers say.

"Cherrybration Days gives us the opportunity to leverage the blossoming season to demonstrate that springtime in Howard County is also wonderful," said Victoria Goodman, executive director of Blossoms of Hope. "And ours is such a multi-purpose project."

Blossoms of Hope is a beautification effort under the tourism umbrella that raises money for the Claudia Mayer Cancer Resource Center at Howard County General Hospital by partnering individually with the county, the Columbia Association and businesses to sponsor events and activities. The nonprofit organization has helped to raise $142,000 thus far, Goodman said.

"Our concept is to keep building this mass of fuschia" to lure visitors and residents alike, she said, referring to the blossoms that are a darker pink than their Washington cousins.

"There's no question the cherry trees are beautiful, but since they don't grow overnight we haven't reached 'spectacular' yet," she said. "D.C. already has 100 years of growing behind them."

Nevertheless, taking advantage of the tourists in nearby Washington is a formula that's apparently working, as more events that benefit Blossoms of Hope are added to Cherrybration Days each year, said Rachelina Bonacci, tourism director.

"The tourism industry in the county is so varied; there's a little bit of everything," she said. "It's neat that we get to add to the celebration each year and that people take artistic license in creating unique events" that fit into the pink theme.

Steve Wecker, who co-owns the Iron Bridge Wine Company with his brother, Rob Wecker, recently purchased special pink plates to make the Columbia restaurant's pink-plate specials in April that much more authentic.

"And I'm issuing a playful challenge to the other 12 restaurants to knock us off as the top fundraiser from last year," Steve said. "Whoever can do that will get a case of Iron Bridge wines."

Steve Wecker, who joined Blossoms of Hope's board of directors this year, said the dining deals raised $4,300 in 2011 and he's aiming to double that total this year.

"There are a lot of events to plug into where we can celebrate having this place to go in the county to get cancer resources," he said. "There's nothing else like it."

There's even a creative social media campaign with a back story about Ginger, the pink gingerbread figure from the Enchanted Forest who is coming to "live" at the Howard County Welcome Center, noted Goodman. Facebook and Twitter users can print out Ginger's photo and then take a photo of themselves holding it at one of the Cherrybration events. Those photos will be collected and a drawing will be held for a $100 gas card.

To take part this year in the centennial celebration of the initial gift of 3,000 trees to the city of Washington from the mayor of Tokyo, Howard County will plant three Yoshino cherry saplings grown from the original trees at the downtown Columbia lakefront in the fall, Goodman said.

The location will be the first in Maryland to be designated as an official National Cherry Blossom Festival Centennial Planting, "further linking D.C.'s spring blossoming attraction with Howard County's pink season," Goodman said. The site will be added to an interactive map on the NCBF website.

Blossoms of Hope is also donating 100 trees to be planted at popular destinations around the county in honor of the centennial. Twenty of the donated trees will be used to establish a grove in partnership with the Columbia Association on the eastern shore of Lake Kittamaqundi.

Other sites include Patapsco Valley State Park's Avalon area, the Timbers at Troy golf course in Elkridge, the Howard County Welcome Center in Historic Ellicott City, the Historic National Road in Lisbon, Historic Savage Mill, and the Howard County Living Farm Heritage Museum in West Friendship.

The Columbia Association partnered with the tourism council to help establish some of the earliest plantings of Howard County's Blossoms of Hope trees, including groves at Lake Elkhorn, Wilde Lake and Symphony Woods. The county public works department has been "planting pink" in the median and along Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia's downtown over the past five years.

Last year the project donated over 50 of its native species pink dogwood trees to three county attractions: The Howard County Conservancy, in Woodstock; the Robinson Nature Center, in Columbia; and Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, in Ellicott City.

Residents can purchase 6-foot cherry or dogwood trees in 15-gallon containers for $125 from Blossoms of Hope. Of that amount, $50 is tax-deductible and $37.50 is donated to the Claudia Mayer Cancer Resource Center.

"Blossoms of Hope has grown up a bit more since its early days, but it's always been a real feel-good project," Bonacci said. "You get to have fun while you're giving back and the trees are really, really beautiful. A lot of people find real joy in this."

For more information on the Blossoms of Hope, go to http://www.visithowardcounty.com or call 410-313-1900.

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