What a Warm March! (Will the Cherries Blossom Early?)

Vineyards, Cherry Trees and East Bay seen from Chateau Chantal
Vineyards, Cherry Trees and East Bay seen from Chateau Chantal

By MIKE NORTON

Traverse City has been having absolutely amazing weather for March – highs in the 70s and 80s, people sunbathing on the beaches before there are even leaves on the trees. Of course, we Midwesterners are suspicious of any unexpected blessing – so the big worry is that suddenly this will all end, and our newly-budding trees and vines will get zapped by frost after they’ve broken their winter dormancy.

And what this does to the annual blossoming of Traverse City’s cherry trees is anybody’s guess. Usually it happens in mid-May – but this year it might be as early as April! Whenever it happens, 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.

“It’s one of our big secrets,” says Sarah West of Chateau Chantal, a 65-acre vineyard and winery estate on the nearby Old Mission Peninsula, in the heart of our fruit-growing country.

Cherries are deeply woven into the fabric of everyday life 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.

Strolling through the Cherry Blossoms
Strolling through the Cherry Blossoms

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.

Chateau Chantal was the first winery to widen the popularity of the celebration by collaborating with other Old Mission Peninsula vineyards and restaurants on an event called Blossom Days. Today the festival – held the weekend of May 19-20 — includes barrel tastings of reserve vintages from the peninsula’s five wineries and special menu offerings at local restaurants, but it still retains some of its original religious flavor. There’s still a Blessing of the Blossoms on Sunday.

“It’s really our way of getting the growing season off to a good start by asking for a good year and a plentiful harvest,” says West. “But what’s nice for the visitors is that this is one of the few times when the winemakers have the time to hang out and talk with them in the cellars and show them a little of what they do.”

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 19 of the peninsula’s wineries. This year’s event is being held May 5-6.

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!

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About mikelovestc

These days, I’m the media relations guy for the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau, but before that I spent 25 years as a reporter and columnist at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, a job that frequently took me out into the most remote backroads, forests, beaches and islands of the beautiful Grand Traverse Region. My strategy was pretty simple — just drive, paddle, ski or walk until you’re certain you’re lost, and then find somebody to talk to. It was a great job! I never intended to live in Traverse City. I grew up in Grand Rapids, spent four years in the Coast Guard in places like Miami Beach, Monterey and San Francisco, and when I finally graduated from college I took a summer job at the Miami Herald. To my surprise, I discovered I didn’t like the tropics nearly as much as I thought I would — and when the Record-Eagle offered me a job I took it, figuring I’d put in a year or two and head off to someplace like Seattle or Portland. What I discovered very quickly is that this place gets to you in a variety of unexpected ways. The beaches here are as lovely as anyplace else I’ve ever been, the weather is mild all year round — warm enough for swimming in September and cold enough for skiing in December — and just about the time you’re getting tired of one season you get another one every bit as pleasant. The people are laid-back and friendly, the music and arts scene is awesome, and the place still hasn’t gotten so sophisticated that a guy like me feels out of place.
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One Response to What a Warm March! (Will the Cherries Blossom Early?)

  1. Ashton J. says:

    Thanks for the great update! My family and I were planning on visiting in May, but I was wondering if the blossoms would bloom earlier because of this warm weather. I specifically mentioned to my family members that I could count on this blog for a good update on the matter!

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