It was a dandelion that first sparked Galloway Township resident Steven Cramer's fascination with plants.
The 2-year-old was walking one day when he stooped low to pluck one from the ground, recalled his mother, Margaret. He picked apart its bud, peeled open its stalk and traced its roots.
Eight years later, Steven spends his days tending a sprawling backyard garden, his interest in plants as strong as it was when he dissected his first dandelion.
"It was just ... I loved it," the 10-year-old said. "I was passionate about it."
While he has been studying every plant he could get his hands on since shortly after he could walk, Steven didn't start his garden until he was about 5 years old, when he requested of his mother that she let her small backyard garden go back to nature. It wasn't long, though, before Steven found nature's pace a bit slow for his liking.
Now, Steven's collection includes Charleston Gray watermelons, Hansel eggplants, Chinese water jugs and more than a dozen others. Behind his fence, in a small pond powered by a solar panel that catches rays in an empty space in his garden, are a variety of water grasses - one of which, he boasts, isn't even found in New Jersey. And he knows, he says, because he's been everywhere.
While Steven's claim may be an exaggeration, he's certainly well-traveled. He and his father, Mike, often go on day trips, or "adventures," to parks, rivers and ponds throughout New Jersey to find new specimens for his collection. Sometimes, they enlist Mom in adventures to sites in neighboring states.
At first, his father said he found the adventures to be a bit of a chore - but Steven's enthusiasm for the outdoors quickly rubbed off on him.
"We started to get to know the parks, the rivers, the ponds, the green acres," Mike said. "Now I'm starting to get into the naturalist thing too. We're right behind him."
Most boys his age ask for toys or video games as gifts; all Steven wants are plants. It's not just his interests, though, that set Steven apart from his peers. While he is outgoing, Steven has some trouble relating to others, and has received a diagnosis on the autism spectrum.
While Steven has symptoms of the disorder, he has come a long way from when he was very young, his mother said, and his eagerness to share his knowledge of plants is quick to earn him admirers when they go together to the store. Still, he has some trouble relating to his peers - not that he minds.
"A lot of kids just don't understand him, because his world is a lot different," she said. "They're talking about Superman and Spider-Man and all these characters, and Steven couldn't care less."
Steven can be frenetic in interacting with people, darting from thought to thought, but he has a more delicate manner in interacting with his plants.
When he's otherwise unoccupied, he'll kneel beside a plant, softly lifting a leaf to study its underside or running his hand along a vine to feel its texture.
His garden, Steven said, is a place of peace.
"Plants just give me a happiness," he said. "If I have a lot of them around me, it just makes me feel comfortable. I come out here all day, every day."
Steven's study of his plants is largely unstructured and self-directed, he says. While he owns several books on plants, he prefers to learn from his own observations, and rather than take notes, he files away each new finding in his mind.
It's Steven's hope to use plants to address the world's problems, whether through breeding drought-resistant corn or using plants to reduce pollution. While his father admits he once thought the future was grim, Steven's enthusiasm has convinced him otherwise.
"When I see him talk, I say, 'You know, when this generation finally grows up, they're going to really change things,'" he said. "If that's the way that kids are thinking, it's going to be an awesome future."
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