By Matt Koehler
Spring is in the air and the days requiring multiple layers of clothing to walk or bike a few blocks from A to B are (hopefully) dwindling. Several spring-like days in mid-late February had many venturing outside only to discover that District flora was already popping. And starting this month, the National Mall will explode with its own yearly burst of white and pink cherry blossoms from several thousand “gift trees.” Like the beautiful but short-lived and fleeting blossoms, the spring renewal heralds the month-long National Cherry Blossom Festival.
The initial gift of over three thousand (3020 to be exact) cherry blossom trees, or ‘sakura’ as they’re known in Japan, dates back to 1912. The festival was born afterwards and has been in “some shape or form [of] existence since 1927,” Diana Meyhew, president and CEO of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, told me recently.
“We’re in our 96th year of the festival.”
Since 1985, it’s been the National Cherry Blossom Festival. “It was an all volunteer org in 2000. “From there, it’s evolved to a fully staffed, year round operation that brings four weeks of amazing art, culture, entertainment – uniting the city in pink and blossoms – and taking the celebration beyond the Tidal Basin to all throughout the city, as well as region.”
Ahead of the Festival, The Southwester sat down with Mayhew, to discuss blossoms, culture, and history.
It’s been a while since I’ve been to the kite festival – since our kid was two or three. When is the main event?
Well, there’s lots of main events. The festival starts the first day of spring, and then goes all the way through April 16. So we have four weekends of key signature events. Opening Ceremony to the Kite festival to Petalpalooza to the finale weekend and the parade.
And then there’s another 40 participating organizations that bring “amazing” entertainment. From the Kennedy Center, the Library of Congress to the Smithsonian. Lots and lots of organization.
This year is actually celebrating 50 years of the 10 mile run. [And] Our goal is to keep it fresh and new. So people are looking forward to something.
Talking about what’s fresh and new, what sort of activities do you have for attendees? And specifically, is there something different this year that you’re doing as opposed to previous years?
Most of our events…[e]ven the traditional events, there’s something that’s always new. There’s new entertainment. There is new art. There’s new activities. And participating activities. There’s a lot of newness.
And even the traditional events that we do. Art is a big piece of this festival. We carry on the program that we started with Art in Bloom with sculptures in all eight wards of the city. We continue that program.
We have a student art showcase this year that’s going to display at Petalpalooza. It will highlight pieces of work that local school children have created as posters for the festival.
What we’re doing this year is really inviting people to spring it on. Not just come back and visit but get involved and get involved big. Really enjoy everything the festival has to offer.
[Another program] we started a few years ago, Petal Porches – people decorating their front porches – [i]t’s really starting in people’s own front yards, front porches. And throughout the city with the blossoms and pink lighting.
It’s just a massive, amazing spring-time destination.
Mayhew tells me that this is their third year doing Petal Porches, and the program started during Covid. Because of the overwhelming positive reception, they’re continuing the program. So keep an eye out for those be-blossomed porches!
I lived in Japan for six years and one of my favorite parts of the seasonal festivals was taiko drumming. I’m assuming you’re going to have taiko drumming this year?
Oh, absolutely. And what we have featuring is a whole day of taiko drumming at the Blossom Kite Festival, at the Sylvan Stage, on March 25. There’s taiko from…local taiko drummers, and all over the East Coast.
And if you love Japanese culture, we actually celebrate the anniversary of the Gift of Trees at an opening ceremony at Warner Theater on Saturday, the evening of the 25th.
As a matter of fact, a lot of the Village of Southwest – the senior village – members will attend the opening ceremony. It’s free, but you do have to reserve.
We also have world class entertainment from Japan that evening. All free! The key thing is we try to do most of our events free and open to the public.
Mayhew says that there’s also going to be a pink tie event on March 16, at the Ronald Reagan Building. It’s an annual fundraiser that promotes food and fashion, and over 25 sponsoring restaurants. The proceeds go towards continuing the effort to provide free programming.
If people don’t have kites, can they buy kites?
Yes, right on site. The official kite each year that we have of our official artwork…[is] right at the Washington Monument.
You said you have Mr. Mikio Toki coming – the master of traditional Edo-style kites. Can you tell me a little bit more about him and what he’s going to do?
Yes, he’s actually coming in to do…a kite workshop with Kipp Schools. He’s doing that the Friday before. Then he’ll be on site at the festival to do some demonstrations of some traditional Japanese kite making.
Is there anything in particular that you’re looking forward to in terms of this year’s festival?
Just, you know, my favorite thing is to have people come and participate. It’s just amazing.
Whether they’re performing in a band. Whether they’re sitting on the bleachers watching the parade. Whether they’re doing a hands-on activity – being involved in art projects. It’s… My favorite thing is having people come and enjoy. It’s such a joyful time of year. And springtime, celebrating new beginnings and renewal – just like the blossoms themselves.
It’s just a fantastic time of year that puts a beautiful focus on Washington, DC.
Do you have any message for District residents about this year’s festival?
For the residents, just to remind everyone this National Cherry Blossom Festival is a treasure in our own backyard. It belongs to the residents of Washington DC. So we look forward to their participation and being a part of it as much as possible.
Is there anything I missed that you would like to tell our readers and people in DC?
Definitely check the website, nationalcherryblossomfestival.org. And go back often because things change. Things update. And we have new wonderful things happening all the time!
Alright Diana, those are all the questions I have. Thanks for your time!
Thank you so much. Take care!