With more than 1,000 Kwanzan cherry trees planted across Howard County and a new celebration being planned for the end of April, Blossoms of Hope organizers say their vision for a flowering springtime attraction has been realized.
"We really, finally have a season of pink in Howard County," said Rachelina Bonacci, executive director of Howard County Tourism, which leads the program.
The season began Friday with the dedication of a grove of 14 trees recently planted in front of Mount Ida, the historic house that serves as the visitor center for Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park in Ellicott City.
Dark clouds and gusts of wind didn't make it seem much like spring, but 55 Cherry Blossom princesses from Washington D.C.'s National Cherry Blossom Festival gamely celebrated their sponsorship of one of the trees.
The larger cherry trees at Mount Ida cost $1,000 to sponsor, with 30 percent going to the Claudia Mayer Cancer Resource and Image Center at Howard County General Hospital.
Sponsorship of other trees on public land, which includes installation of a plaque, costs $500 and similarly supports the Mayer Center. More than $30,000 has been raised for the center by the blossoms program.
Sponsorships are available at 13 sites around the county, with the most recent plantings taking place at Cedar Lane Park in Columbia, Meadowbrook Park in Ellicott City and the Thomas Isaac Log Cabin and Heritage Orientation Center on Main Street in Ellicott City.
"I think everyone has been touched by cancer one way or another," said Janet Robey, honorary chairwoman of Blossoms of Hope. When someone has battled cancer, she said, the dedication of a tree "has been a great way to remember them and honor them."
In the past year, programs for businesses, communities and individual homeowners to purchase and plant cherry trees have grown, significantly speeding the program to its 1,000-tree goal.
Efforts by state and county agencies to use cherry trees in their plantings along streets and highways have also made the project more visible. The latest county planting added 50 cherry trees to the median of the Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia Town Center.
"It is just really impressive how the project has grown," Bonacci said. The first 20 trees were planted in November 2004 along Route 108 at Centennial Park in Ellicott City with hopes that a countywide effort would add beauty, attract visitors and increase interest in local historic and cultural sites.
Now efforts are turning to ways to tie the trees to tourism activities.
The appearance of the Cherry Blossom princesses in Howard County as part of their week of events around the nation's capital represents new ties with Washington, Bonacci said.
The princesses, ages 19 to 24, come from each U.S. state and several territories as part of a program organized by the National Conference of State Societies. They are chosen for their commitment to leadership, academic and civic activities.
Yesterday, a delegation of nearly 100 tourism staff members, Howard County legislators and volunteers planned to go to Washington for the second year to escort three 15-by-15 foot cherry blossom balloons in Washington's Cherry Blossom Parade.
Having reached the 1,000-tree mark ahead of the proposed five-year time frame, the tourism office has been working to fulfill its promise to hold a large public celebration, which it is calling a "Cherrybration."
The event is planned for April 28 at Centennial Park and will have a theme of connecting with nature, exploring wellness and raising cancer awareness, said Victoria Goodman, who was recently hired as Blossoms of Hope's executive director.
The Cherrybration, sponsored by Comcast, will begin at 3 p.m. with a dedication ceremony for all of the trees sponsored in the county in the past year. It will culminate in a procession at dusk with nearly 200 illuminated hand-made paper lantern sculptures.
Two artists led lantern-making workshops with community members to get the project started, and children and staff members from the county's 42 recreational licensed child care centers are working on the sculptures. An additional 100 people can make lanterns at a 9 a.m. workshop at Centennial Park on April 28 if they register ahead of time.
In coming years, Goodman said, she plans to expand the lantern procession into a signature spectator event with workshops for local people and groups and opportunities for people across the country to bring illuminated sculptures.
The arts are an important part of this year's celebration, as well. Organizers plan to have 40 children create blossom-themed paintings on one canvas, provided by Howard County Center for the Arts. The finished work will hang at the Claudia Mayer Center. Artist Teri Rizzutti will conduct workshops at the event to help young artists explore their talents.
Other activities on April 28 will include music, crafts for children, a plant sale, storytelling, information booths and displays. Families are being encouraged to picnic at the park during the celebration, but some food will be available.
Bonacci said the range of ways to get involved has been a key to Blossoms of Hope's success.
"It is a perfect example of if everyone works together, you can grow something beautiful," she said.
Information on Blossoms of Hope and the Cherrybration: www.visithowardcounty.com or 410-313-1900.