The largest single group of cherry trees in Chicago is at the cusp of full bloom, with peak viewing expected to start within days.

Thousands of people have come to see the 160 trees surrounding the Columbia Basin lagoon, just south of the Museum of Science and Industry, according to Chicago Park District manager of art initiatives Michael Dimitroff.

Dimitroff said that 5,000 people viewed the pink and white blooms last weekend alone, with some laying out blankets in the spirit of hanami, the Japanese tradition of savoring cherry blossom season with leisurely viewings, picnics and festivals.

“It was the picture of harmony,” Dimitroff said. “It was like ‘Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte’ — the Seurat painting but the Japanese hanami version.”

America’s romance with cherry blossoms was imported from Japan, where the blooms are celebrated as symbols of spring and the fleeting nature of beauty.

“There’s something beautiful about every stage of the process: watching the buds, watching them fully open, when the little heart-shaped petals fall to the ground, the fragrance in the air,” said Park District operations support manager Karen Szyjka.

“You can go out there even when it’s raining; (you can go) in the morning or in the evening. There’s something to be appreciated in every moment,” she said.

The Park District is posting updates on the blossoms’ progress and will hold a free Hanami Sakura Celebration Sunday from noon to 3 p.m. at Jackson Park, in partnership with the Japanese Arts Foundation, Japanese Culture Center, Consulate General of Japan in Chicago and the Jackson Park Advisory Council. The event will feature traditional drumming and dancing, origami and haiku

America’s signature cherry blossom display was born in 1912, when Japan gave 3,000 cherry trees to Washington, D.C., to be planted along the Potomac River. Those trees would be joined by others, and today Washington’s cherry blossom festival is a tourist attraction and a widely recognized rite of spring.

Chicago, with its notoriously punishing climate, was a less obvious candidate for a mass planting. But beginning in 2013, the nonprofit Project 120 and the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Chicago took on the challenge.

They planted trees in Jackson Park to commemorate the 120th anniversary of the 1893 World’s Fair and the 50th anniversary of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Chicago, according to the consulate general of Japan in Chicago and the Park District.

There were years when the temperamental young trees barely bloomed or the wind carried off the blossoms within days, but 2021 brought a full-fledged viewing season.

If the weather holds, this year’s blossoms could last another week or two, but then again, a storm could bring them down in two days, Dimitroff said.

“It’s all weather dependent,” he said, and that’s in keeping with hanami. “The idea is, it’s a fleeting moment in your life, so go out and celebrate.”

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