“The plum blossoms fall,– Sam Hamill, from A Warbler’s Song in the Dusk
soon the cherry trees will bud.
Someone plays piano
in a house not far away.
And your sad soprano calls.”
There’s plenty around New Jersey that most Americans no nothing about. And when mentioning Newark, the state’s largest city, most people have visions of a dangerous, dilapidated city with a major airport that everyone would prefer to avoid. Those people don’t consider the beauty of New Jersey that includes the largest display of cherry blossoms outside Washington, D.C., at Branch Brook Park.
The cherry blossoms are so impressive at this park that NPR even recommended visiting — it was the top choice ahead of Central Park and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The primary reason for the recommendation isn’t just in the number of cherry trees in Branch Brook Park, but for the variety of those trees. The park is home to 14 varieties of over 2,700 cherry trees. 2,000 of those trees were first introduced to the park in 1927 by Caroline Bamburger Fuld in honor of her late husband.
Despite all the splendor of this park and the cherry blossom festival, it took until this year — in the midst of a global pandemic — for me to visit. Prior to this, I hadn’t been to a park with a significant number of cherry blossoms, except for a late-season walk through Yeouido Park in Seoul.
After talking with my coworker who lives next to the park, I determined it was a good weekend to visit (it was peak bloom, though wind and rain had blown a bit of it away). I invited my friend Dave of Perry Trails to join in as he hadn’t explored Newark before — and I really haven’t seen much of the city since I worked there right out of college.
As I was concerned about parking and traffic, Dave and I took the PATH to Newark Penn Station and switched to the lightrail to Branch Brook Park. We should have walked south from the station before heading to the northern end to meet my coworker — I was told the majority of cherry blossoms are at the southern and northern ends of the park.
We saw some of the trees along the way, but the middle of the park is mostly meadows and other trees that aren’t in bloom as early in the season.
As we reached the Althea Gibson tennis courts, my coworker met us and took us on a little tour of the northern section of Branch Brook Park. There was a decent crowd there, but it was manageable. It looked like there were more people at the southern end when we arrived.
There’s a nice loop trail around the Cherry Blossom Welcome Center. There’s also more along the river that extends into neighboring Belleville, but we opted to skip that and head out for a late lunch.
Peak cherry blossom season does not last long — only a few weeks — and can be shortened by rain and wind. Fortunately, there’s a cherry blossom webcam for all you tree voyeurs to enjoy if you can’t make the trip to Newark.
While getting out to see the cherry blossoms in Newark was wonderful, particularly as it was with other people, the highlight of the day was getting lunch in the Ironbound neighborhood. There aren’t a lot of restaurants along Ferry St. near Penn Station that have outdoor seating, but we found Sabor Unido with plenty of space outside.
Sabor Unido is a terrific small Brazilian/Portuguese restaurant, and it’s BYOB with a liquor store stocked with Portuguese wine just across the street. All three of us were excited perusing the menu as everything sounded appetizing, but then our waiter mentioned that their special that day was feijoada — a stew of black beans, chorizo, and some other ingredients that I couldn’t recall. It sounded so good that we all decided to order it. They even brought out homemade hot sauce that was powerful and tasty.
The pots of feijoada didn’t look like much, but they were filling. We might have liked to try dessert afterwards, but we were more than satisfied.
I went back to Sabor Unido the next year after a long walk through Branch Brook Park and downtown Newark. This time around, I ordered moqueca, a Brazilian fish stew with shrimp. It’s not spicy but has a wonderful flavor that’s a mix of sweet and salty with tomatoes, peppers, and fish.
We contemplated getting more wine to enjoy outside, but decided it was more prudent to depart Sabor Unido as there was a line to get a table at 3:30 in the afternoon. Obviously, we made the right decision eating there.
The best bet for visiting Branch Brook Park during the cherry blossom festival is to take the light rail to Branch Brook Park station and walk north through the park to the welcome center. From there, it’s a pleasant stroll south. Before heading back from Orange Street station, you can stop at Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart, which began construction in the 1890s and was offered to the Pope during World War II.