Cherry blossom events begin with solemn DC tribute

The flowering trees that symbolize friendship between the United States and Japan are set to bloom for the 99th time in Washington in the wake of one of the world's worst natural disasters.

Before the two-week National Cherry Blossom Festival opens Saturday, organizers will hold a fundraising walk Thursday evening among the trees for victims of Japan's March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which killed an estimated 18,000.

The Stand with Japan event begins at 6:30 p.m. on the Washington Monument grounds. Money raised will go to American Red Cross relief efforts.

Washington's 3,000 Yoshino cherry trees are expected to begin blooming Saturday. The National Park Service predicts they'll be in peak bloom next Tuesday through Friday.

The tradition began with a gift of trees from Japan in 1912.