Club helps kids identify the fruits of their labor

Contest: A local organization plants the seeds for a love of science and puts children's plant knowledge to the test in a state competition.

September 04, 2005|By Mary Ellen Graybill | Mary Ellen Graybill,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Budding horticulturists scrutinized the fruits that covered the tabletop and worked hard to identify them and answer questions.

Susan Knight, an adult leader of the Cecil County chapter of the National Junior Horticulture Association, quizzed the 15 youngsters gathered at one of their weekly meetings this summer. These junior-level participants, some as young as 8 years old, have been increasing their skills in identifying a host of horticultural items. An apple was among the first items up for examination. The club members had no problem speaking with authority on the fruit, its seeds and leaves.

Then it got tricky.

Knight warned that some samples in the contest may be dried. Those in the group craned their necks to get a closer look at a nicely toned apricot. The avocado can be black if it is ripe or green, she says. And the color of cherries can range from red to black, white or purple.

Knight asked questions about the various items.

"That's a chestnut," one club member said.

Another item, and more questions.

"That looks like an orange!"

Knight told the group that an orange and grapefruit could be similar in color.

Learning how to distinguish different types of fruit is important. "They learn how to identify; that's one of the main things they do. And, to a lesser extent, they do some quality judging," said Glenn Shortall, co-owner of the Fair Hill Florist Shop in Cecil County where the group met.

Past club members have gone on to win in the state and even national competitions.

This weekend, winners of identification contests in several counties throughout Maryland were to compete in the state contest at the Maryland State Fairgrounds. The winners of the state competition go on to the national championship contest next month in Aurora, Ohio.

Last year, the Maryland Junior Horticulture team was the national champion and its members earned 36 national awards in areas including plant identification and quality, written exam, demonstrations, public speaking and photography, said Eileen Boyle, volunteer coordinator of the Cecil County group.

Plans are under way to bring the national contest to Maryland in the next couple of years.

The NJHA is a statewide 4-H club that describes itself as the only organization that focuses solely on youth and horticulture. The club's acronym - HYCEL - represents the topics that are emphasized: horticulture, youth, career, education and leadership.

Founded in 1934, the organization is dedicated to teaching youth about the art and science of growing and handling fruits, nuts, vegetables and herbs, flowers, foliage plants, woody ornamentals and turf, or grasses.

The local club has a strong family theme. Youngsters often are following in the footsteps of older siblings, and parents of club members are frequently involved as club leaders or coordinators.

James Sprout, 9, is following the example of his sister Erica, 12, who is in the intermediate division. Their mother, Marianne, is a coach. James won third place in his first junior horticulture competition this summer in Elkton.

"This is my first year," James said. Marianne added, "They give them little tricks to remember, and they want to go home and buy one of everything!"

For some, the family legacy runs even deeper.

"We have four grandchildren this year competing," said Ruth Brown of Rising Sun.

Harford resident Mark Hoopes joined the local club at age 7. Now 20, Hoopes won a national title at the 2003 convention in Raleigh, N.C. His younger sister Kim has participated also.

"Maryland is one of the more competitive states," said Hoopes, who is going to Virginia Tech this fall to major in horticulture.

For more information on NJHA, go to www.njha.org.

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