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Love of plants blooms into career

Gudrun "Gudi" Christenson, 74, is living proof that life begins at 50.

"I was a very late bloomer," said Christenson, who had been a homemaker for 23 years when her husband, Charles, died.

"I knew I had to find a way to earn a living and raise my kids," she said. Her daughter, Ellen, was in college, but Karen was still a teenager at home.

One day, while sitting in her kitchen staring out the window at the nearby woods, she decided, "I've always liked plants, so why not study plants."

She returned to school to study botany and graduated with a bachelor's degree at the age of 50 from the University of Maryland. Her first job was with the Smithsonian Institution and involved a great deal of traveling.

"It was such a great job to have," she said. After two years she joined the U.S. Department of Agriculture and was sent to Brazil, "because I could speak Portuguese.

"I was looking for plants that might fight cancer," Christenson recalled.

From Brazil she traveled to Venezuela and later to Malawi.

"In Malawi the law said women must wear skirts, below knee, and no trousers," she explained. This wasn't much of a problem except for the time she was stung on her leg by a wasp.

"(Because of allergies) I was always watching for insect bites and I always carried a hypodermic needle with me," said Christenson. "But the one time I was bitten, I was nowhere near my hypodermic."

Her leg swelled from her toes to her knee. It was so bad, "I thought my skin was going to burst," Christenson recalled.

She will share stories of her travels and other information at the monthly meeting of the Citrus Garden Club on Thursday. The meeting starts at 9 a.m. in the recreation building of Whispering Pines Park in Inverness.

Overall, Christenson has had an enjoyable career, all 15 years of it.

"I was 65 when I retired. It was time for me to stop," she said. But it wasn't over yet.

"A year after I retired I got a call from the Department of Agriculture. They had a strong need for someone to go to Brazil," said Christenson. "They asked me to come out of retirement . . . so I did."

Christenson still enjoys traveling. She recently went to China and will probably take a third trip to Cambodia soon to visit Ellen, who is employed as a social worker for a Buddhist society.

When friends ask Christenson if she ever plans to slow down she tells them, "When my bank account and my knees give out, then I'll buy a rocking chair and a cat and stay put."