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A lavender reminder of Florida's fading past

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By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 18, 2000


Bob Schieble told me that if I were writing a column in Tampa in the '70s, I'd be writing this one every April. The papers would run a front page picture.

But there aren't many jacarandas left to photograph.

A few bloom on my street, and perhaps yours, in unapologetic lavender explosion now. They bloom in April and April only.

Some people, perhaps thinking of Easter, call the color purple. Some call it blue.

Schieble, the horticulturist for Lowry Park Zoo, came here from Miami more than 30 years ago. Not long after he got to town he heard a story that he passed on Monday, that there had once been "some sort of movement . . . to have the jacaranda made the official tree of Tampa, and have Tampa called The City of Blue."

How lovely it sounds.

How un-Tampa.

If I hear Tampa called The City of Blue, I think the speaker is referring to the bump-and-grind circuit that has made the town infamous. You know. Nature of a different, baser sort.

But back to the nature Schieble remembers: Even after he moved to the city, he said, "You could go down what is now I-275 and count 50 of them between Malfunction Junction and Fowler Avenue."

The trees are mostly gone. What you notice now are the billboards, the sorry houses, the skyscraper-high motel signs. The trees were damaged by freezes in the '70s and '80s and, according to Schieble, were destroyed by tree trimmers who convinced homeowners that the cold had killed the trees outright.

This was not just true in Tampa but throughout the bay area. So if you don't notice the jacarandas or they catch you by surprise, there's a reason, and it is not your failure to truly see when you look. We destroyed the jacaranda, the way we destroyed much of the rest of natural Florida.

And they were, still are, a unique feature of the Suncoast. They thrive from Brooksville to Sarasota, according to Schieble. Any other place to the north is too cold, and any other place to the south is too warm.

Monday was tax day. It was also roughly the halfway point of jacaranda season.

There are people who think it can't end soon enough. Schieble is philosophical about them. "It's all a matter of whether you appreciate this beautiful thing or not. It's how much hassle you want to put up with."

These are the people who get irked when the jacaranda blooms -- purple, lavender, blue, whatever color you want to use to describe them -- drop and cover the ground like so much confetti at a funky wedding.

The honeymoon lasts only a week. Then the blooms rot. "They get all squishy, slimy," Schieble said.

Then the complainers complain.

These people are realists. These are people who balance their checkbooks without fail, never run out of stamps, never can be accused of looking wrinkled when they leave the house in the morning.

I am not a realist, and I do not travel in their company.

On Sunday, a friend and I were driving back from St. Petersburg to Tampa when she pointed out several jacarandas off to the east.

She said that the trees reminded her of postcards of Florida as it was before we all came down, with their idyllic sketched-in scenes, tinted in unreal, perfect pastels.

They evoke for me a different picture. If Florida were full not of transplants from the Northeast and Midwest but French impressionists, jacarandas would be their favorite subject. Especially in that week that's coming, when their petals cover the ground like daubs of paint.

The heck with the realists. What do they know?

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