If you were playing word-association, “cherry blossoms” would probably be answered with “Washington, D.C.”
Not so fast. Every April, Essex County’s Branch Brook Park in Newark and Belleville, can rival the capital’s Tidal Basin during its own Cherry Blossom Festival. And unlike D.C., New Jersey’s pink-petal oasis is planted in a naturalistic way resembling the trees’ appearance in their native Japan.
“The vision was not a line of trees, but to lace the trees into the landscape,” says Branch Brook Park Alliance trustee Jim Lecky, whose connection to the place goes back to his days in utero. (While his mother was in labor with Lecky 57 years ago, she insisted on driving through the park on the way to the hospital.) “It’s really a work of art,” he says.
The trees are usually in full bloom for three weeks in April, and at its height, the park’s Cherry Blossom Festival—which is in its 33rd year—attracts more than 10,000 people a day. The collection is a work in progress: A revitalization effort has been under way since a 2005 survey found that the original lot of 2,050 trees, donated by the Bamberger family in 1927, was down to just 984. The alliance has since planted thousands of saplings, and by next year aims to have a total of 4,000 cherry blossom trees dotting the park’s landscape.
The blossoms are not the only reason to visit Branch Brook Park, which was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted at the turn of the twentieth century. During the summer months, its 360 acres of ponds, paths, fields, and playgrounds feature fishing derbies, free evening outdoor movies, a farmer’s market, and all kinds of sporting events. “Essex County officials had the foresight to preserve open space in the developing city of Newark,” says Essex County executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. “Through the years, the park has…contributed greatly to our quality of life.”
But the dark silhouettes of bark amid the fluttering pink petals are not to be missed while the trees are in bloom. “In Japan, the blossoms are a symbol of life’s transience,” says Lecky. “They’re revered because they’re evanescent—they come and then they go.”
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