New festival blossoms at Descanso

As Japan struggles to rebuild itself in the wake of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and the devastating tsunami that followed, La Cañada residents will have a unique opportunity this weekend to connect with and reflect upon the nation’s rich cultural traditions at Descanso Gardens’ inaugural Cherry Blossom Festival.

For years, Descanso has honored Japan’s heritage with its Japanese Garden Festival in November. This is the first time that the cherry blossoms, which bloom briefly in late winter and early spring according to their variety, will take center stage.

Visitors to the garden March 19 and 20 can participate in a wide variety of activities that focus on the Japanese culture and its influence on America, including guided tours of the garden’s many cherry trees. On Saturday, visitors can watch a 30-minute Japanese tea ceremony and listen to a lecture by Descanso horticulturalist Mike Brown on the genus Prunus, which includes stone fruit trees such as cherries, plums and peaches. On Sunday, Jesse Genovese, executive chef at Toluca Lake’s Ramsey’s at the Club, will give a Japanese-fusion cooking demonstration with a tasting afterward.

Descanso is also offering for sale Bento lunch boxes, cherry blossom-inspired cocktails and young cherry trees for planting.

“With that spectrum, there’s something for everybody,” said Lisa Kurstin, who manages Descanso’s education programs. “It might be just the right thing for people who are thinking of Japan right now, because it’s an immersion in Japanese culture.”

The event will take place rain or shine, and covered seating is available for outdoor events in case it does rain anytime during the festival, Kurstin said.

Kurstin said Descanso representatives were invited last year by the Japanese Consul General’s office to a consortium of gardens that host cherry blossom festivals. After hearing anecdotes about hundreds of people coming to celebrate a single cherry tree at some locations, it seemed a no-brainer to host a festival at Descanso, which boasts more than 20 trees representing 10 different varieties of cherries, according to Wen Wang, curator of plant collections.

“It’s best to come out in person,” Wang advised potential festival-goers. “(The blossoms) are like snowflakes falling — it’s very relaxing and beautiful.” The locations of the trees, including the Japanese Garden, will provide ample photo-taking opportunities, he added.

According to Japanese tradition, the soft pink and white crenulated blossoms that bloom and fall delicately off branches in a light shower represent the beauty and impermanence of life. Called sakura in Japanese, the blossoms are treasured reminders that life is fleeting.

In 1912, the Japanese government made a gift of cherry trees to America as a sign of friendship, and those trees are still an attraction to tourists who visit Washington, D.C., today. Cherry blossom festivals throughout the nation will recognize the centennial anniversary of that international gesture next year.

Descanso staff members said they hope this year’s festival will give rise to a new tradition for visitors to the garden and highlight those features — including the Japanese and Camellia gardens — that have been strongly influenced by Japanese culture.

Activities are free with admission: $8 adults, $6 seniors/students, $3 children 5-12; 4 and younger enter free. For more details, call (818) 949-4200 or visit


What: Cherry Blossom Festival

Where: Descanso Gardens, 1418 Descanso Drive, La Cañada Flintridge

When: March 19-20

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days

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