Washington in full bloom
National Cherry Blossom Festival ushers in spring in the US capital.
When I first came to work in Washington DC in 2004 a friend suggested that in my spare time I might like to check out the two-week National Cherry Blossom Festival around the tidal basin near the Potomac River.
"It's quite a sight." Then he said: "Wait a minute it's April 26th so they've probably died by now!"
The next day I went down there and he was right. They'd all ceased to display a couple of weeks earlier. Rats! Determined not to be thwarted, however, I vowed to one day return and see the "blooming spectacle" for myself.
Today, six years later, I finally did and, as luck would have it, my visit coincided with the main day of blooming, so I got to see the trees at their best.
And wow what a sight it is!
I realise that this blog will only work if you can see what I saw, so I asked my newsroom colleague Sara Hassan to illustrate this feature for me.
I'd willingly have taken the snaps myself except that my "Box Brownie" is knocking on a bit and tends to produce cropped heads, 45 degree-angle trees and the impression the Jefferson Memorial is really a melting wedding cake.
Sara has a much newer camera than me and, as you can see, is a jolly good photographer, so thank you Sara.
DIDN'T YOUNG GEORGE WASHINGTON CHOP DOWN A CHERRY TREE?
Before I go any further, a quick point of clarification.
You've all heard the story of the first US president, George Washington, who when asked by his father who had chopped down his favourite cherry tree replied. "I cannot tell a lie father, you know I cannot tell a lie! I did cut it with my little hatchet."
Washington's daddy forgave him immediately and told his son that hearing the truth spoken so freely was worth a thousand cherry trees blossomed in silver with leaves of gold.
Before you throw up let me explain - I'm talking about a different kind of cherry tree altogether. GW flashed the steel of his axe blade around the bark of his father's English variety of cherry tree. The ones around DC's tidal basin are Japanese Flowering Cherry Blossoms.
There are almost 7000 of them circling the basin, weaving around key locations such as the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, the site of the future Martin Luther King Junior Memorial, two road traffic bridges and the famous Thomas Jefferson Memorial.
As I strolled in the sunshine with thousands of tourists round the outer edges of the tidal basin I glanced at the Jefferson Memorial and a thought struck me – "the old boy's hovering above a cloud of cherry blossom" - that's just what it looks like honestly.
It seems everyone wants a photo of the cherry blossoms with Jefferson in the background but this year the view is slightly spoiled by a massive green tarpaulin and a yellow crane perched on a giant wooden platform that covers some of the steps in front of the 3rd president's dome.
It turned out to be part of a seawall reinforcement programme paid for by a contribution from President Barack Obama's $787bn economic stimulus package.
The $18.5m work is ugly but as several jobs have been created or maintained by this two-year project so we'll just have to put up with it this year and next.
Now, I don't know about you but I'd been expecting the cherry blossom to be pink in colour but in truth I only saw one pink cherry blossom tree, the rest were off-white with an almost perfect green/yellow stamen "star" inside their petals – very attractive!
People will tell you that they smell sweet but all I got was a whiff of burgers and popcorn.
That's because the National Cherry Blossom Festival, like a lot of things in America, is really an excuse for someone somewhere to make gazillions of dollars.
Like Don for example! That would be Don of "Don's Johns", who supplies portable toilets for the crowds. I counted 18 at the Jefferson memorial itself and 47 near the refreshment marquee on the other side of the basin.
GRATUITOUS EXCUSE FOR AN ANECDOTE
By the way did I ever tell you my portable potty story? It's a cracker. I was walking through a suburban DC neighbourhood one Saturday afternoon when the need to "go" washed over me.
I was in the middle of a housing estate and things were so desperate I considered knocking randomly on doors to ask if I could use their facilities.
However, this being America, there were several home renovations going on in the street and each building site had its own "Johnny on the spot".
The workmen weren't present as it was the weekend so I simply availed myself of the nearest unit. What a great country this really is! Where else in the world could you do that?
Anyway, back to the cherry blossoms. Various large tents have been set up so you can purchase a range of attractive boutique gifts in comfort like National Cherry Blossom Festival lapel pins, sweatshirts, water bottles, pens and this year for the first time, an NCBF necktie.
There are pony rides and a bike valet service too for people who want to park and ride in a green way.
The festival organisers also have a fireworks display on the middle weekend of the 16-day festival and at the end of the blooming period on April 10th, they stage a long-standing Washington DC tradition: the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade which is billed as the nation's premier springtime event, attracting around 100,000 spectators.
CHERRY BLOSSOM HISTORY
The 2010 festival is the 98th in National Cherry Blossom Festival history.
It all started 1912 when the mayor of Tokyo gave 3,000 trees to the city as a symbol of lasting friendship between the two countries.
In 1965 the Japanese sent over a further 3,800 trees and in 1981 the cycle of giving was completed when the US sent cuttings back to Japan to replace trees damaged by floods.
Today, a million people come to DC every year to see the cherry trees in bloom and I must say I'm really glad I was among them this year, especially as its been a particularly harsh winter with at least two record snowfall blizzards.
However, now I must leave you.
Today it's 70F (21C) and I'm exiting the crowded Jefferson Memorial area and heading for the refreshment site on the other side of the tidal basin.
Cherry flavoured soda anyone?