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    Flower of youth

    A program aims to cultivate young people into future nature lovers in a botanical garden program just for them.

    By EILEEN SCHULTE

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published September 14, 2001


    LARGO -- Natasha Ross and Janie Howell studied an assortment of raw okra, milkweed, wing beans scattered over a green picnic table.

    Plastic cubes encasing dead butterflies sat nearby, and caterpillars crawled over a potted plant.

    Occasionally, thunder boomed overhead. A humid wind whistled through the pine trees and made the corn sway in Pioneer Vegetable Garden.

    But Natasha and Janie were unconcerned. They had stepped back in time to Florida circa 1900, when pioneers grew their own food.

    Natasha, 11, and Janie, 8, were participating in a Saturday morning children's program at the Florida Botanical Gardens at Pinewood Cultural Park adjacent to Heritage Village in Largo. The free volunteer-driven program was designed to help children learn about plants, flowers and seeds, and how to cultivate and care for them.

    There is a different theme each Saturday. On the day Natasha and Janie were at the garden, it was "Where Do Vegetables Come From?"

    James Blackwell, a volunteer master gardener, taught them about pineapple sage, which smells like pineapple when you crush it between your fingers.

    But Natasha was fascinated by the okra, peeling back its thick green skin and peeking inside.

    She said she planned to eat it raw because "I'll try anything once," she said.

    But there was danger.

    "Watch out, honey," said Janie's grandmother Loraine Faust, a volunteer at the Botanical Gardens. "The okra will make you itch. It's got little hairs."

    Natasha put it down and picked up a natural sponge and turned it around in her hands, and ran her fingers over its rough texture.

    "You can scrub your back with it," said Blackwell. "Or wash your tires."

    Then Janie discovered something else in the garden she recognized right away.

    "Oh, peanuts!" she said excitedly, running to Natasha to show off her find.

    Natasha examined the raw peanut, its dirty roots dangling off it.

    "I don't think you should eat it yet," Natasha told Janie.

    The girls took turns going to the garden and finding treasures. Janie found a dried up string bean and brought it to her grandmother.

    Both found some sugar cane and, after Blackwell cut it into pieces, they began sucking on it.

    "Chew and spit," said June Ross, Janie's mother, worried she would try to swallow the string-like meat of the sweet plant.

    Although Natasha admitted she's "more into animals, reptiles and amphibians," she enjoyed her day in the garden.

    She received some milkweed and calendula seeds to plant when she got home.

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