Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Kenwood neighborhood an unofficial blossom destination

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J. Adam Fenster⁄The Gazette
Myeong Hee Park, Jee Hyun Lim, Eun Young Shin, Seok Chan Lee and Era Nohh, all of Fairfax County, Va., picnic under the Yoshino cherry blossoms in Little Falls Park in Bethesda. The fleeting cherry blossom season brings tens of thousands of people to the Kenwood neighborhood each year.
Every spring, the Bethesda enclave of Kenwood hides in a cocoon of soft pink and white puffs, as the neighborhood’s cherry trees come into full bloom almost overnight.

Beneath the serenity of the cherry blossoms, Kenwood is transformed from a quiet neighborhood of about 240 homes into a horticulture hotspot. This year, more than 30,000 people will stroll Kenwood’s tree-lined streets in search of the perfect cherry blossom view. They come to Kenwood hoping to avoid the morass of tourists in Washington, D.C.’s Tidal Basin.

‘‘There are too many people there, bumping into each other,” said Dae Yoon, from Fairfax, Va.

Yoon and his wife, Erin, have leisurely wandered through Kenwood every blossom season for the past three years, but this was the first trip with their 5-month-old son.

‘‘It’s a little bit chilly, and the trees haven’t all blossomed, but it’s still beautiful,” Yoon said.

The spectacle lasts less than two weeks — Kenwood’s Yoshino trees usually blossom for about two weeks around April 1, and by all accounts are expected to be rounding their peak today, tapering off through Easter weekend.

According to Japanese tradition, the delicate blossoms’ short life span represents the transience of human life. But for Kenwood, the blossoms have also historically represented fender-benders, busted rearview mirrors and roads jammed so tightly that they would have made streets impassable by paramedics in an emergency, according to residents.

This year, thanks to a coordinated effort between residents and Montgomery County Police, neighbors say they are safely enjoying the blossom celebrations.

‘‘It has just been a godsend for us,” said Roger Whyte, who helped lead the push for traffic control by off-duty county police. ‘‘It really became an issue of safety with our neighbors. We finally made the decision to bite the bullet and hire police.”

Whyte said he woke early this year to stick yellow ‘‘no parking” signs in neighbors’ lawns and received hearty thanks from everyone who saw him. He said the police and residents hatched a strategic parking plan three years ago, including the bright yellow signs.

At the main entrance to Kenwood, at River Road and Brookside Drive, off-duty officers from the 2nd District direct traffic from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends.

Other officers roam the neighborhood on motorcycles. They pass Kenwood’s youngest residents, shouting ‘‘Lemonade! Cookies!” from the curb.

Those budding entrepreneurs also have their hands in the pot during blossom season. At least one outfit is set up on every major artery in Kenwood, peddling sugary treats and eating their profits.

Kenwood’s newest pair of twins, Gabriella and Isabella Corcoran, fifth-graders at National Cathedral School, had a monopoly on the Brookside Drive exit onto River Road. They manned a lemonade-and-cookie stand with their best friends from National Cathedral School — also twins, also named Gabriella and Isabella.

The Corcoran sisters moved to Kenwood only a couple of months ago, and their father, Philip Corcoran, a cardiothorasic surgeon at Suburban Hospital’s NIH Heart Center, encouraged them to set up shop on the front yard last Saturday afternoon.

The girls raked in the cash — $86, not counting change, after only three hours. All of it went to the American Cancer Society.

Roger Whyte’s sons, now in college, ran a lemonade stand in his front yard when they were around the Corcoran twins’ age, he said, earning $100 or more.

Whyte moved to Kenwood 10 years ago, and back then, he was woefully unfamiliar with the Japanese and Chinese traditions attached to cherry blossoms.

The first morning of his first cherry blossom season in Kenwood, he opened his front door to grab the newspaper – and stumbled on a Japanese family enjoying the view from his stoop.

The next morning, around 7 a.m., he glanced out the window into his backyard.

‘‘Out by the swimming pool, there was a Japanese family having breakfast,” he laughed. ‘‘I didn’t know what to do. I looked at them, they looked at me . . .”

Now, he doesn’t bat an eye when a family plops down for a picnic beneath the Yoshinos in his front yard.

Barbara Libbey, who moved to Kenwood in 1969, is well-known as the resident Yoshino expert — the dainty 77-year-old also runs Kenwood’s 80-member gardening club.

She counts 1,200 cherry trees in Kenwood. The trees were planted in the 1920s even before the first Kenwood house was built, by the Kennedy Chamberlin development company.

Japanese couples sometimes hold weddings at the traffic circle just outside Libbey’s house — the circle is made surprisingly picturesque by the winding, gray trunks of old Yoshinos — and wedding attendants collect bags of cherry blossoms to sprinkle in the bride’s path.

The residents’ attachment to the Yoshinos led some to ask Whyte if he could procure signs reading ‘‘No climbing on the trees.” He said neighbors worry about branches breaking under the weight of tree-climbing kids, and also about children’s safety. Whyte and Libbey said nobody has ever reported a tree-climbing injury.

But the trees are delicate, Libbey said. One unlucky brush with a weed-whacker or an overzealous blossom-picker could spell doom for a Yoshino.

‘‘They’re fragile, but that’s what makes them beautiful,” she said.

She said the trees are a lifetime commitment — homeowners are responsible for keeping the trees alive and healthy, and often will become so attached to their Yoshinos that they don’t want to cut them down if they become infected with a native peach tree bore.

‘‘Why, once you move into Kenwood, you become a part of the trees,” she said.