A Pink Paradise
The surprising story of how a Southern city became the cherry blossom capital of the world.
While you may first think of Washington, D.C. or even Japan when it comes to cherry blossom trees, think again, and think much more southern. The official cherry blossom capital of the world—and home of the International Cherry Blossom Festival—is actually Macon, Georgia. “Each March, Macon becomes a pink, cotton-spun paradise as over 350,000 Yoshino cherry trees bloom in all their glory,” says Macon, Georgia’s International Cherry Blossom Festival President and CEO Stacy Moore. “For 10 days, festival-lovers are treated to one of the most extravagant displays of springtime color in the nation as they visit the town referred to by Congressional Records as the Cherry Blossom Capital of the World.”
Yoshino cherry trees aren’t native to Macon. In fact, the trees are quite rare in the South. But it was in 1949 that they were first discovered in the city when a local realtor, William A. Fickling Sr., stumbled upon one in his backyard. At that time, he didn’t know what species the tree was, but he was so mesmerized by its beauty that he was determined to figure it out. He began asking around—even talking to his gardener about it—but to no avail. No one around had any information about the unique tree. It was rather unexpectedly, three years later, that Mr. Fickling spotted what seemed to be the very same species of tree while on a business trip to Washington, D.C. “During a return trip, he compared a cutting from his tree to those around the Tidal Basin, and it was a perfect match,” adds Stacy.
Thrilled with finally having an answer and still enthralled with the tree’s beauty, Mr. Fickling began propagating the Yoshino cherry trees and sharing them freely in the community with anyone and everyone who wanted one. Over the years, both residents and visitors alike continued to be enamored by the trees, and nearly 40 years later, one particular admirer, Carolyn Crayton, a North Carolina transplant, became such a fan of the pretty pink trees that she reached out to Mr. Fickling and asked if he would be so kind as to donate some trees to be planted in her particular neighborhood. He agreed—as long as she agreed to organize the actual planting of the trees—and soon after approximately 500 Yoshino cherry trees were planted. It wasn’t too long until there were thousands upon thousands of cherry trees throughout the city, and Carolyn’s vision bloomed into the creation of a festival to celebrate the city’s beloved tree. “As the Executive Director for the Keep Macon-Bibb Beautiful Commission, she proposed launching a Cherry Blossom Festival to celebrate the beauty of the trees and to honor Mr. Fickling for all he had so generously contributed to the town,” explains Stacy. “As a result, the Cherry Blossom Festival was born.”
Officially launched in 1982, Macon’s International Cherry Blossom Festival was established on the principles of love, beauty, and international friendship. The Festival is held over a 10-day period each March—10 days because the trees reach peak bloom for just 10 days—and during that time visitors can experience the beauty of more than 350,000 Yoshino cherry trees in bloom. A highlight of the event is following the Cherry Blossom Trail, which guides spectators along a particularly beautiful route starting with downtown Macon and then throughout the city, including through the neighborhood of the Festival’s founder and a dozen of the city’s historic districts. While the festival started out rather modestly—in its early years it was only a three-day event—today it includes dozens of other events geared toward all ages and interests, including carnival rides, all types of shows, concerts, food trucks, and even a parade. The Festival has turned into such a renowned event that it has been named one of the Top 20 Events in the South, a Top 50 Event in the U.S., and one of the Top 100 Events in North America. Last year, Macon’s International Cherry Blossom Festival received the Pinnacle Award from the International Festivals and Events Association for the Best Festival in the World. While the Festival’s awards continue to increase practically every year, thankfully so does the number of the city’s beloved cherry trees as well. The Fickling Family Foundation continues to donate thousands of the trees to local residents every year, not only keeping Macon pretty in pink but also securing the city’s title as Cherry Blossom Capital of the World. “The cherry trees are located all over the county, and they are a beautiful backdrop for our events,” Stacy says. “Toward the end of their blooming period, the petals begin to fall and it looks like it is snowing pink snowflakes all over the county.”