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In state of subtle seasons, azalea blossoms declare spring's renewal

PALATKA

Joan Turnage's favorite time of the year has arrived in her North Florida yard, where everything is in bloom, especially the azaleas, which glow red and pink with magnificent life. "In Palatka," she says, "we think you should go to jail if you don't love azaleas."

In Florida, azaleas go with spring like fried catfish and hush puppies. Miss Joan worries lovingly over her 30 azalea plants and keeps a close watch over the blushing azaleas of the widow next door. When she drives through town, Miss Joan enjoys judging the quality of this spring's azaleas or gossiping about what slacker homeowners might do to improve the lot of their tortured azaleas.

"Honestly," she says from behind the wheel of her Chevy SUV. "Nobody needs to let their azaleas grow wild like in that yard. Just chop them back once in a while in the summer to control them. They'll come back strong in the spring."

Did we tell you her favorite season is spring? She is a lover of spring from way back. She was born in Palatka, population 11,000, which bills itself as the azalea capital of Florida and even has an azalea festival every March.

The azalea woman is the president of her city's garden club and the director of "Friends of Ravine Gardens State Park" in the middle of town. For most of the year, park visitors admire the spectacular ravine. In the spring, azaleas take center stage. For six weeks beginning in March they come to life in the ravine and along the 1.8-mile park road. Eventually the fragile blossoms flutter to the ground in pink death.

Miss Joan, 64, buried her husband a decade ago. Her own personal winter lasted almost two years. Then the widow began to bloom again.

• • •

The bass are bedding in the shallows of the St. Johns River. Sometimes Miss Joan sees a bald eagle overhead, clutching a bream intended for the chicks waiting in the nest. The swallow-tailed kites have arrived, and one of these days the indigo buntings may show up at the bird feeder.

In North Florida, spring packs a wallop. When Miss Joan hears a Yankee transplant complain about Florida's lack of seasons, she is fit to be tied. She tells the newbie to pay attention to the sky and the water. And for heaven's sake, the azaleas.

Nature, like grits, is part of her sense of place. Her daddy operated a drive-in restaurant that featured 19-cent hamburgers and a 13-year-old carhop named Joan, but at home she got her hands dirty helping Mama grow peas and beans, okra and tomatoes. They raised chickens and hogs and reeled in bass.

Miss Joan avoids pigpens these days, but she is the queen of dirty hands. She grows roses and lilies at her Mosely Avenue kingdom. She has cabbage palms and crepe myrtle, wisteria, iris and magnolia. She composts with last night's leftovers and quenches the thirst of her fig trees with rainwater collected in buckets.

As she toils she thinks about Paul. High school sweethearts, they married when they were 24. He was career Air Force; they lived everywhere, even Alaska, where they camped with their two children among the brown bears and she learned to shoot a .357 pistol just in case. They also lived in Europe, which is why she speaks a smattering of Italian, German and French along with her native Florida cracker.

After they retired they returned to Florida. They were going to camp — not in a trailer, but in an old-fashioned tent. They'd bring fishing poles and bird guides and bicycles. And when they were home, they'd work side by side in the back yard, maybe have a little vegetable garden. In the spring, they'd take long walks through Ravine Gardens State Park and swoon at the overwhelming sight of 100,000 azaleas in bloom.

In September 2001, after the terrorists struck, a different kind of tragedy came to their house. Suddenly Paul couldn't remember things. One night he even got lost coming home. Doctors wondered if he'd suffered a stroke.

Tests revealed an inoperable brain tumor.

He died on Oct. 19. They had been married 31 years and two days.

Miss Joan was 55 years old. "I'd never been alone. Suddenly I was alone. It wasn't easy.''

• • •

After the shock and the grief she grew numb, going to bed early and sleeping late. Then she got a job working with preschool kids, which meant she had to rise from bed at a decent hour. The nights were still lonely, so she became a cashier at Corky Bell's Seafood at supper time. It felt good to be around people.

She bought a kayak. She admired alligators and ospreys. She weaved the fronds from cabbage palms into Christmas wreaths. She made plum jelly. She painted flowers on ornaments and sold them to raise money for charity. One night she flipped a penny onto a map. The penny landed on Bowling Green, Ky. She drove to Bowling Green for an adventure, which turned out to be exploring a cave.

She knew the worst was over when she felt like visiting her favorite park again. At Ravine Gardens State Park, she noticed the goldenrod, ironweed, winged sumac, morning glory, Indian pipe. She yanked the awful potato vines away from the Formosa, flame and pink azaleas.

Once again she is as much a park fixture as the azaleas. Sometimes she ambles along the road and keeps her shoes clean, sometimes she wades into the thick azaleas with a joyful gleam in her eye.

She is never afraid of the bees, which dart by the thousands, if not millions, from azalea flower to azalea flower, drinking nectar, transferring pollen, making sure that life will go on.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8727.

The 65th Annual Azalea Festival ends today with festivities from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in downtown Palatka, 40 miles east of Gainesville. For more information, visit www.flazaleafest.com.

In state of subtle seasons, azalea blossoms declare spring's renewal 03/03/11 [Last modified: Sunday, March 6, 2011 8:11pm]

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