Most of the year, Mary E. Wilmot, director of special projects for the District of Columbia mayor's office, simply lets Mother Nature do her thing. But for the few months each year that Wil-mot serves on the Mayor's Cherry Blossom Festival Committee, she uses any leverage she can muster to keep Washington weather just cold enough just long enough that the city's cherished cherry trees don't get confused and blossom too early.

"The cherry trees are being watched carefully," Wilmot said, laughing nervously. "Our lives depend on those little rascals.""We have to hope that normal March weather prevails, because the blossoms are ready to pop," said William H. Anderson, a horticulturist at the National Park Service. "If we get five days over 50 degrees, we'd have blossoms in a week."

Does the National Park Service have a secret weapon capable of tricking the cherry trees into thinking it's still winter? "We have no such technique," Anderson said, laughing. "We employ witchcraft and incantations, but we don't do anything that practical."

He wouldn't guess when the trees will bloom but warned that in spite of a warm winter, the unseasonably cold weather in November was probably sufficient for timely development of blossoms.

Peaking blossoms, drooping blossoms, or no blossoms at all, the National Cherry Blossom Festival, expected to bring a million visitors to see the 1,500 trees around the Tidal Basin and a similar number in East Potomac Park, begins April 2.

And if nature cooperates, there might be a light wind, as there was last year, to shower spectators with petals.