A Warm Welcome Jean Worthley, a Carroll County grandmother and botany teacher, knows when spring arrives by the messages it leaves at her own hodgepodge lodge.

March 20, 1997|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

On Saturday, Jean Worthley will lead a botany class to Susquehanna State Park to find a plant she first spotted 10 years ago: the harbinger-of-spring. The annual search is one of the rituals in a life devoted to observing all things natural.

Jean was 60 before she saw her first harbinger, a small wildflower also called pepper-and-salt because of its color. Its life is short. Finding it means keeping one's eye to the ground. Wait until other wildflowers come up, and it will be too late.

Spring is the season for developing an awareness of things, of pruning rose bushes before they blossom, forsythia afterward; of being neither too late nor too soon, but in nurturing a sense of balance. Despite yesterday's snow, there is no turning back. Storm or calm, the light that has been building out on the horizon lasts a full 12 hours today, the first official day of spring, and in weeks to come will continue to light the skies and the soul.

Some people plant pansies. Pull up wool carpets and lay down cotton weave. Others seek renewal in the stem of a budding iris or the sight of a horseshoe crab crawling from the mud.

For Jean Worthley, a 72-year-old with a hearty laugh, a slight limp, and big round glasses propped on her nose, renewal is part of the structure of her life.

What she sees on her 18-acre wooded plot in Carroll County is recorded in the lined pages of a thick, bound book. She has filled 20 such ledgers. They allow comparisons, proffer advice, and reward success. They stir awareness and memory. From what she has noted this year, spring is two weeks early.

The excitement began in December, when seed and plant catalogs appeared in the mailbox. This year she didn't order much because she is saving her money to travel in China. It's hard to choose, anyhow. Her husband, a biologist who died nearly six years ago now, wanted examples of every plant outside his door to show students. So instead of a well-planned nature preserve, they created what she calls "a horticultural zoo."

After catalogs, the first hint of spring is skunk cabbage. Naturalists look for it in February. Jean spotted it in the swamp in January this year. It's an amazing plant that makes its own heat, and can bloom with snow on the ground. By the second week of March, five or six inches of the two-toned leaf are sticking up. By summer, it will be tall and bushy. The native variety is a speckled maroon on one side and lime on the other; inside, the flower resembles a thumb-sized pineapple this time of year.

Skunk cabbage's most distinctive feature is -- guess what? -- its smell. It attracts plenty of bugs, but few gawkers: Last weekend the Irvine Natural Science Center cancelled its walk in the woods to hunt skunk cabbage when only two people signed up.

But when you spot one in the backyard, or back swamp in Jean's case, you think about how it would look next to the Asian version -- all white -- or the Western version, which is bright yellow.

Past the skunk cabbage, woodrush is blooming. Most people walk right by it, but Jean picks it up to examine. In her hand, you can see fuzzy white hairs growing from the bud at the end of the blade.

Over a ways in a stream is marsh marigold. "It is very, very scarce," she says. The leaves look like ivy and the flower like a buttercup. When her father was a little boy, he cut up the leaves and ate them to mark the beginning of spring. They were the first fresh greens after the long hard winter -- back then, you couldn't buy fresh spinach. There was only what could be canned or kept in the root cellar.

Jean bends down to rip off the tips of green shoots. Clumps of them line the bank of the stream. "I'll add these to my spring stir-fry," she says. Day lilies. In winter, the roots can be dug for potatoes. In July the flowers are bright orange. Once considered a weed, they have become a cult.

An endless spread

Day lily. Dandelion. Field mustard. Watercress. This is her salad so far. The watercress has been available all winter. It grows in a shallow stream near a footbridge. Seeing it thrive is a personal victory; so many times her mother tried to get it to grow but there was not the right amount of sunshine or gently flowing water.

As a child, she was taught at home from books her mother ordered from the Calvert School. "These books said, 'go out and look for some hepatica. ' There was one for each season." So along with milking cows and killing chickens on her family's Owings Mills farm, she rode horseback into the woods each spring looking for bloodroot, hepatica, liver leaf and wild huckleberry.

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