Branching Out


It's the knowing smile before a lover's embrace. It's the musicians' warm-up notes before an orchestra's performance.

This time of year, on the streets of Bethesda's Kenwood neighborhood, most of the pink buds on the cherry trees are still closed. Tree branches from both sides of the streets arch so far, they meet in the middle, but there's no burst of color, no fragrance. Yet.

But some people can't wait. Anticipating that the blossoms will be in full bloom by this weekend, they've come out days in advance, beating the throng of cars and the crowds on foot that will soon descend on this ever-less-secret alternative to the more famous cherry trees on Washington's Tidal Basin.

The basin may be the site of the official Cherry Blossom Festival and ceremonies, but this residential neighborhood is the unofficial favorite site for locals to revel in the blooms.

Developers planted more than 1,200 cherry blossom trees here in the 1920s, hoping to attract homebuyers to the new suburban neighborhood. Cherry trees had become Washington's signature natural landmark after the city received more than 3,000 cherry trees as a gift from Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo in 1912.

A sign of the coming of spring, the cherry blossom is celebrated during an annual festival that draws millions of visitors to Washington each year in search of attractions beyond the white-granite monuments and seats of power and politics.

The Kenwood cherry blossoms, though, are for those who enjoy a more rustic backdrop, and though not as popular as those in D.C., these blossoms do draw a crowd of their own.

Still, Kenwood somehow retains a quiet hush.

"What I think is so fabulous about it is the air; people almost whisper as they come through, because it just envelops you, the pink and white," resident Marian Hatton said. "I tell my friends, 'It's heavenly, a canopy of pink and white blossoms.' "

Hatton moved to the area two years ago from Cleveland, where apple blossoms rule. She often tries to describe the cherry blossoms to her friends back home but often is at a loss for words - a common reaction to the trees' beauty.

Which is perhaps why photographers and artists are drawn to Kenwood's frothy pink-and-white canopies - they don't need words, they have cameras and paintbrushes.

Some are like Iris Lemos, an artist and costume designer who moved to Chevy Chase from New York last year and was taken aback by the full-bloom beauty.

Yesterday afternoon, she spent about two hours sketching the bud-filled branches.

"This year," she said, "since I followed the whole season change, it's very, very dramatic how the branches twist and how you can see the shapes when you're walking around. "I'm trying to capture the change, so that maybe when they come back and blossom, I will do a painting."

The neighborhood would be inviting even without the floral display that adorns its streets each year at this time. Nestled between Little Falls Parkway and River Road, Kenwood is dense but affluent, with mansion-sized homes and well-manicured front and back lawns, some with trees as opulent as the cherry blossoms hugging the curbs. There are few for-sale signs in front of the sought-after homes here, but Realtors like Cynthia Mariz say that's not really because of the cherry blossoms. (It's the usual: location, location, location, which this close-to-D.C. neighborhood certainly has.)

Everyone in Kenwood gets involved in preparing the area for the tourists, from landscapers to children who set up lemonade stands for thirsty blossom-peepers.

"There are cars that come up and down here, and people walking," said resident Loraine Smith. "There's nothing more beautiful than to have all these blossoms on these trees. We all look forward to it."

Area residents become valued as a first-alert system - friends call on them for their informed assessment of the questions of the day: Have the cherry trees blossomed yet? When will they peak?

By phone or e-mail, Bob Gifford, who lives in nearby Garrett Park, has become the source for his colleagues at the State Department. He spent yesterday, a day off, cycling beneath Kenwood's famous trees, knowing that soon the area would be much more crowded.

"When [the blossoms are] out, there'll be tons of people out here," Gifford said. "If the blossoms were out right now, there would be gridlock out here, people walking along the streets and cars bumper to bumper."

Gifford said he'll be back when the blossoms arrive as well, cycling along the Capital Crescent Trail, a popular 11-mile bike path that snakes through Washington and curves into Bethesda, affording many cherry-blossom vistas.

"I just came out to see if a few were out," said Gifford. "They should be out by this weekend. People love them, because these are old trees and they just create this bridge right over the road."

Yesterday, the operative words in these parts were "Not yet." But as the weather warms, the blossoms will come. And where there are blossoms, there will be crowds.

Soon, this quiet neighborhood of million-dollar homes will draw bumper-to-bumper traffic. It's the one kind of gridlock in the Washington area that no one seems to mind.

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