Signs of the season

If you think spring begins the day the chocolate rabbits start to appear, think again: Long before the Easter Bunny lollops into town, there are ways you can anticipate the equinox. And local naturalists stand ready to tell you how.

The North Carolina Arboretum

Ah, the trembling jonquil: a lovely sight, this fragile testimony to the beginning of spring.

But North Carolina Arboretum naturalist Ron Lance prefers the bloodhound’s approach to enjoying the season. His Scratch and Sniff Woodland Tour — offered on Saturday, March 20 — is a unique journey through the Arboretum grounds, during which he instructs would-be hikers how to positively identify native plants by their smell.

“It gives people an opportunity to use a sense they would usually ignore,” Lance explains. “Most plants have a distinct odor, but people never take pains to smell them.” And early spring is a good time to learn the art of plant sniffing, says the naturalist, because the sap is just beginning to form but isn’t yet flowing so abundantly as to obscure the more delicate odors of the forest. During the woodland walk, Lance will present up to two dozen species of poisonous, medicinal and flowering plants for olfactory inspection. Participants are asked to bring a blindfold for a post-tour game that tests their powers of recall.

Some plants, of course, are no-brainers. Stinking cedar, for example, is a species that tends to stick in most people’s noses. Other types of wood, says Lance, “cross the line … cherry has an odor like bitter almonds that some people find disagreeable.”

The Scratch and Sniff Tour, while recommended for families, is also ideal for botanically curious individuals, not to mention bored snackers: For the uninitiated, however, identifying plants by taste can be “a little bit hazardous,” he concedes. Still, for hikers committed to expanding their sense of the forest, a little knowledge can be a tasty thing. Black birch, reveals the naturalist, “has a taste like wintergreen … really nice to chew on.”

Noted herbalist Rebecca Wellborn’s annual herb-propagation workshop, an Arboretum favorite, shows folks how to start their herbs in containers, so they will be ready for outdoor planting when the weather warms up.

Herbal healing is really a form of empowerment, Wellborn believes: “People are dissatisfied with traditional medicine, [especially] because it’s so expensive. They want to be back in control [of their health].”

Besides tips on growing herbs, Wellborn will also discuss their various medicinal and culinary uses during her March 30 workshop. Although such herbal lore dates back thousands of years, science is just now beginning to assemble the hard facts that skeptics require, says Wellborn. “We now have better data to [show] that herbs do work,” she notes; “It’s becoming more believable to people.”

Further evidence of the budding herbal renaissance may be seen in the diverse audiences (“a lot of elderly women — but we have men, too”) the herbalist’s popular workshop attracts. But apart from any trend, sowing the spring’s first shoots is a joy that transcends social boundaries. “It’s the perfect time to be doing this,” enthuses Wellborn. “People get real excited seeing the first seedlings come up: It’s a sign that winter won’t last forever.”

The Scratch and Sniff Woodland Tour takes place on Saturday, March 20, from 1-3 p.m. The cost is $2 for Arboretum members, $3 for nonmembers. The herb-propagation workshop will be held on Tuesday, March 30, from 6:30-8:30 p.m. ($8 for Arboretum members, $10 for nonmembers, plus a $5 materials fee). Prepayment is required. The North Carolina Arboretum is located at 100 Frederick Law Olmsted Way in Asheville. For further info on these and a host of other spring programs, call 665-2492.

The Botanical Gardens at Asheville

The thoughtfully designed sylvan recesses of the Botanical Gardens at Asheville invite introspection and mental renewal at any time of year. Although we’re a good three months away from the season of riotous bloom, these shady groves, adjacent to the UNCA campus, are secretly alive even now, says spokesperson Glenn Palmer. Early bloomers such as bloodroot, columbine and the rare Oconee bells are clearly labeled — to aid less-experienced nature enthusiasts, he says — and the new entry garden should be ready for public viewing in time for the gardens’ Grand Reopening Celebration on Saturday, March 20.

The event will begin with a guided bird walk at 8:30 a.m., led by Ed Caldwell; there will also be lectures on butterfly gardening and Appalachian folk medicine, among many other activities.

And on Saturday, May 1, Palmer will co-host A Day In the Gardens, sharing the spotlight with the UNCA Botany Department’s annual bird and wildflower pilgrimage. Tours will be offered, and plants and local arts and crafts will be on sale. “Nature’s spring bonanza,” says Palmer, “will be in evidence [from] 9 a.m. until 4 p.m.”

The Botanical Gardens at Asheville are located at 151 W.T. Weaver Boulevard, next to the UNCA campus. Call 252-5190 for a schedule of events.

The Western North Carolina Nature Center

If your idea of a fulfilling Saturday night is heeding the seductive peep of nocturnal frogs, here’s your chance to succumb to these spring sirens without even waiting for them to come to life. The Nature Center will phone you when the night’s right for peepin’, ensuring an evening of amphibious fun at a moment’s notice.

Participating in the Peeper Creep is easy, says Nature Center publicist Angela Mayo. Just add your name to the list of local frogophiles, and be prepared to travel to the designated places near Black Mountain and Swannanoa, when this call of the wild arrives.

The Nature Center — which harbors animals unsuited for life in the open, whether because of injury or reckless human contact — is well known for such wildly original programs as the Peeper Creep. Also scheduled for the warmer months are the annual Spring Out celebration (Saturday, April 24) and Farm Fun Day (Saturday, May 15). And, later in the summer, there’s the Snake Beauty Pageant (proud parents, take note: Talent is also a part of this competition).

Taxes and new baby animals might be considered two hallmarks of the spring season, but Mayo observes that, at the Nature Center, nothing is a given. “We have baby goats and sheep, and sometimes baby wolves and deer … but we never know exactly which animals are going to [give birth].”

The Western North Carolina Nature Center is located at 75 Gashes Creek Road, in Asheville. Call 298-5600 for additional info.

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