By MIKE NORTON
Ever been to the annual blossoming of Traverse City's cherry trees? Usually it happens in mid-May; it's one of America's most impressive floral displays. Ironically, it's a show that few outsiders ever see.
There's no denying the spectacle itself: 2.6 million blooming cherry trees climbing the steep glacial ridges like battalions of tidy white clouds, their soft lines contrasting with bright new grass, acres of yellow dandelions and the cobalt blue waters of Grand Traverse Bay. But because it takes place several weeks before the start of the formal tourist season, the sight is only witnessed by those who already know what's in store for them.
Cherries are deeply woven into the fabric of everyday life here in Traverse City, which bills itself as the "Cherry Capital of the World." (Quite rightly, since 75 percent of the world's tart cherries - the kind used in pies, pastries and jams - are produced within a few miles of this charming resort town.)
Most Traverse City cherries are grown on two peninsulas that lie just to the north of the city: the Leelanau Peninsula, a roughly triangular land mass along the Lake Michigan shore, and the narrower Old Mission Peninsula, which runs for 20 miles up the center of Grand Traverse Bay. Renowned for their natural beauty, these two peninsulas are bathed by deep glacial lakes and bays that create an unusually mild "microclimate" with cool springs, dry summers and long warm autumns that extend the growing season well into October.
This anomaly was discovered by the Rev. Peter Dougherty, a missionary to the local Ottawa and Chippewa Indians who planted a cherry tree at his Old Mission settlement in 1852. No one expected the tree to survive so far north, but it did - and it wasn't long before arriving settlers began planting cherries, peaches, apples and apricots of their own.
Today, Traverse City is a bustling recreational, commercial and cultural destination. Only a small fraction of the local population works in the fruit industry, and for most of the year it's easy to ignore the millions of trees that grow on the surrounding hills. But when they suddenly burst into blossom, they're impossible to take for granted.
First to bloom are the sweet cherries - about 600,000 of them. Then, within a few days, they're joined by two million tart cherry trees. Unlike the ornamental cherries familiar to visitors to Washington D.C., these blossoms are pure white. (From a distance some trees seem to carry hints of pink from their red twigs, while others take on a touch of light green from the emerging leaves around them.) The color intensifies within a week, however, when light pink blossoms of 670,000 apple trees suddenly appear.
Unfortunately, the mild microclimate that makes this all possible doesn't guarantee that the cherry bloom will happen at the same time every year. There are wide variations in onset and duration of the blossoms from one season to the next - though this year may set some new records -- and even from one orchard to the next. Generally speaking, areas farthest away from deep water tend to bloom earlier and finish more quickly, than those along the coast - and often the difference can be as much as a week.
"Typically, the areas around Acme and Williamsburg are usually way ahead of the orchards that are closer to the water, and the tip of the Old Mission Peninsula starts much later than the base," says Bill Klein of the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station near Suttons Bay.
Such a dramatic display calls for celebration, and Traverse City residents have always observed the onset of the spring bloom with appropriate festivities. Early celebrations were a rough-and-ready business centered around the farm community -- an annual "blessing of the blossoms" performed by local clergy, followed by an informal potluck at the nearby church.
But over the past 20 years, the rapid development of Traverse City's wine industry has brought new spring visitors to the area, and the area's wineries have begun promoting the blossom season as a time to enjoy spring's distinctive culinary treasures - tender asparagus shoots, sweet strawberries, and the delectable morel mushrooms gathered in the local forests. All accompanied, of course, by the region's distinctively fruity wines.
It wasn't long before the wineries and restaurants of the Leelanau Peninsula created their own spring blossom event. Called the "Spring Sip & Savor," it mixes "new release" wine-tastings and gourmet meals at many of the peninsula's wineries.
But for many visitors, the best part of the season is simply getting out and driving along the winding peninsula roads to see the hundreds of flowering trees set against the green grass, the yellow dandelions and the deep blue waters of the lake. I'll try to let you know when it starts happening, so you don't miss it!