Monday, March 24, 1997
Spring brings brief advice:
Seize the day

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Yellow wands of forsythia wave by the roadside.

A day or two ago they were just brown sticks poking through piles of last fall's leaves.

It looks like spring is blooming suspiciously early this year.

''Plants are advanced eight to 12 days from last year,'' confirms Tom Smith, horticulturist turned senior vice-president of Spring Grove Cemetery & Arboretum.

''We've even had to mow the front lawn already. We don't usually start cutting grass until the first week of April.

''Hour by hour things are changing,'' he adds as he eases his car along Spring Grove's network of narrow roads.

Rounding a tight turn, he spies a pair of swans nesting on a island in one of the cemetery's 14 lakes. Sunlight dapples the water with silver rays. The birds raise their heads at the sound of the car. Sensing no danger, they go back to the business of nest-building.

Nature's show

Down the road, he slows to take a look and a whiff of an anise magnolia just sending its first white blossoms into the spring sky.

''We'll go away for the weekend,'' he says, ''come back Monday and Boom! Plants like forsythia and that magnolia are puttin' on their spring show.

''Hey! Look at that red maple! Spectacular!''

Tom slams on the brakes as if the autumn flame red maple standing by the curb is going to pull up its roots and dart out in front of his car.

The tree stands still. Tom doesn't. He cranes his neck and extends a long arm to point out clusters of crimson buds.

Not far away a late-blooming magnolia stands and waits. Its cone-shaped buds are wrapped tight, just a blush of pink peeks through their tips.

Tom Smith stares at the buds. He knows what they're thinking.

''They're asking: Is it safe to come out? Can I make it? Or should I run for cover?''

Go for it, says Dave Roberts. The Cincinnati Zoo's assistant horticulturist predicts ''a nice, long spring. After having so many bad winters lately, it'll be nice to have a gradual spring where the temperatures climb slowly and we glide into summer.''

Spring has come so quickly to the zoo, he can already stand back and smell the Fruit Loops.

The aroma of the fruity breakfast cereal hangs in the air outside the zoo's insect house. It drifts from the pink and white flowers of the winter honeysuckle.

''Walk around the corner and, without warning, you get hit with the scent of Fruit Loops cereal.''

Spring fever

Just the sight of spring flowers makes me want to shed my winter skin. Put the down jacket away for another year. Think thoughts of warmer days and nights.

Tulips are popping up over night. Spring Grove's deer are nibbling them down to the ground.

The bad weather is definitely behind us. Spring is here. Summer's coming.

Not so fast, warns Ruth Ann Spears. The manager of the Krohn Conservatory says not to go rushing the seasons.

''These early blooms are typical for Cincinnati,'' she says.

''So, too,'' she points out, ''are late frosts and even a little snow for the Reds' Opening Day.''

She's sounding a note of caution in all this spring madness.

Tom Smith agrees. Grudgingly. He's paged through Spring Grove's old weather records. He knows what they show. Only three times in the last 60 years has the magnolia trees' three-week blooming season gone uninterrupted by sleet, killer frosts, snowstorms and high wintry winds.

But that's no reason to give up hope and not enjoy the blooms while they last.

Dave Roberts feels that way whenever he sees a saucer magnolia. When it blooms, its white flowers open as wide as saucers. They release a delicate perfume.

But invariably the temperature drops, and the magnolia's fragile petals ''wind up looking like wet, tissue-paper handkerchiefs drooping off the trees.''

That is the eternal promise of spring.

It does not operate on the pessimism of here today, gone tomorrow.

It is a season that offers the promise of the moment.

Its blossoms are here today. Enjoy them now.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.