Here Come the Flowers

It’s hard to believe that the freezing temperatures and snowfalls of February really were winter’s last blast, and yet, here we are. On the first day that the sun was out and the temperatures had crept back up into the twenties, birds could be heard twittering like spring had arrived before the snow had even thawed. And they haven’t stopped their chattering since—apparently they knew something we didn’t.

Over the past two weeks, the world has shifted into an early springtime. Snowdrops and witch hazel survived the freeze and were joined by winter aconite. Front yards and fields are dotted purple, white, and yellow with spring crocus. Delicate little scilla and spring snowflakes have made an appearance at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Daffodils and hellebores, the first of the more sizable flowers, have begun to open. Golden yellow Cornelian cherry dogwoods are blooming all along Magnolia Street in Tower Grove Park, and the very first cherry blossoms and magnolia flowers are just beginning to push their way out of the buds that have kept them warm all winter.

So move slowly when you go outside, and don’t forget to look down at your toes and up into the treetops: the first flowers are here, and there is no shortage of them. There will still be cold days, but now the hill has been crested: we are heading for the heart of springtime.

White Snow, Blue Skies

It isn’t often in St. Louis that we get the kind of weather that’s characterized the last few weeks. Up until February hit, it had been a mild winter so far, with just one significant snowfall at the tail end of January. It seemed there was a chance that we might just ease into an early spring.

And then it hit. Single digit temperatures, arctic winds, and snow on snow on snow. These things have been known to make an appearance once or twice a winter in St. Louis, but rarely for long. This time though, the persistence of the cold gave us a sight we rarely get to see here: snow that stuck around through sunny days. Too often, our snowfalls, no matter how glorious, turn to grey slush or melt away completely within a day or two. It’s just not cold enough for it to stick around, especially if the sun comes out. But days of subzero temperatures brought the gift sunlit snow glittering beneath blue skies.

That wasn’t the only unusual sight, either. This cold was deep enough freeze just about everything. Pipes burst, giant icicles hung from the bottoms of overpasses, Forest Park’s Grand Basin froze over so solid that park visitors walked across it with confidence. It was a cold so brutal that when the high temperature for the day crossed 20 degrees, it suddenly felt like springtime. Even the birds were out and singing like it was an April afternoon. And the birds weren’t far off: with rain and warmer temperatures in the forecast now, the time for a thaw has come. Today’s snow will be tomorrow’s trickling slush, seeping down into the soil to give life to the seeds that are waiting there.

Late First Snow

The first snow came late this year, hitting St. Louis last Wednesday at the tail end of January. Until then, it had been a dry winter. There was a barely-there dusting of snow once; another day, 8 hours of flurries that didn’t stick; and a coat of ice that glazed the trees on the first morning of the year before it melted by early afternoon. Other than that, there hadn’t been much precipitation in the city all winter.

This unusually dry winter makes you wonder about the bulbs and buds sleeping through the season. Will the lack of water affect them when spring comes around?

But there’s no need to worry yet. Wednesday’s snow was followed by a day-long downpour on Saturday, and there’s more snow and rain in the forecast. We associate snow with the holiday season, but in reality, January and February are the snowiest months of the year here. There is still plenty of time for winter weather. As January draws to a close, department stores roll out their spring dresses and put their overcoats on clearance. But nature is in no hurry—winter is far from over.

Snowdrops Appear

Snowdrops have made an early appearance this year, reflecting the mild winter we’ve had so far. The ground must still be soft enough for those little bulbs to push their way up. The sun was out for several days in a row this week, and they knew it. In wintertime, the sky seems to offer little more than a bleak, white paste. A clear day cannot be wasted indoors or underground. So up they came.

Usually snowdrops don’t come around until February or so, followed closely by the spring crocus. But last year, too, snowdrops made their appearance in late January. Perhaps as mild days in the middle of winter become more common with the changing climate, these snowdrops will become less a harbinger of spring and join witch hazel as a midwinter bloomer.

The snowdrop is one of those things that makes it seem as though life itself is trying to be symbolic: a tiny, delicate flower, snow-white and humbly bowing, shyly offers its beauty as a symbol of hope in the midst of winter dormancy. It asks us to remember that winter does not cast a spell of death across the earth; it merely compels us to refine our skill for finding beauty in times when it is not obvious.

A Long Year: 2020 in Review

2020 was unusual in the universality of its hardships. It kept us all away from so many of the people and traditions we loved. For a number of reasons, it kept me away from this blog.

But even as the pandemic and wildfires and floods raged around the world, nature was kind to us this year here in St. Louis. Unlike the temperamental springs of recent years, the spring of 2020 was long and mild, easing gracefully out from the winter cold and patiently waiting until June to give way to hotter temperatures. Horticulturists at the Missouri Botanical Garden noted that the gentle weather made for the best spring blooms in a decade. The summer was not so cruel as usual, either. Not once did we hit the triple digit temperatures that seem to come around every July to beat us down and flatten us into the pavement. Autumn, too, was exceptional. In recent years, the blue skies and mild temperatures have taken their sweet time, showing up in late October and leaving a week later to make way for frozen rain and nasty winds. But this year, it made an early appearance in chilly September nights and stuck around through November. Even wintertime has been tame so far. It’s January now, and temperatures have only dipped into the teens once; no major storms have shut down roads or knocked out power. The mild days allowed us to get out of our homes for walks or picnics; to see friends and family safely outdoors; to take trips to state parks when we couldn’t travel elsewhere. In a year so full of cruelty, injustice, and loss of life, this mellow weather felt like a gift.

With the winter solstice now freshly behind us, the days are growing longer again, and vaccines now provide a light at the end of the tunnel of the pandemic. For now, though, as we plunge headfirst into this new year, nothing much has changed. Nature, too, goes about its business, unaffected by the changing of the calendar. As the loneliness and anxieties of this era continue, take the time to step outside into the sharp cold of a crisp winter day, to stand on your front step and look at the little cloud that rises from your nose. Be grateful for the breath in your lungs; for the goodness of life and all that is living.

In Spite of It All, Springtime

An early spring comes as a welcome surprise in St. Louis. The past few years have seen cold, rainy winters that stretched deep into April, even into May.

And this year more than ever, we need the welcome color of the greening grass, the fragrant whisper of early flowers. The past weeks have brought nothing but sickening uncertainty for humanity as COVID-19 shuts down city streets, cuts off income, and takes lives.  We hunker down inside with our cellphones and frozen vegetables, but there is nothing more we can do.

There is freedom, though, in realizing that you are doing all you can–the freedom to let go of the rest. To step away from the constant sick count updates and to bake a loaf of bread. To slow your anxious heartbeat and to read a book.  And the freedom to step outside and take a walk and to see, in spite of it all, the fresh breath of springtime.

Already the magnolias and cherry blossoms are in flower, and many will peak this week. Daffodils sprout up in sunny bunches. Crocus, squill, and hellebores are in full bloom. The smell of hyacinths skips on the wind. Birdcalls we haven’t heard in months sound from treetops in the early morning light, and the sun sets later and later in the evenings. The buds that promise summer’s leaves nod in the breeze. Around them, our routines, our jobs, our systems all crumble. But new life marches on: the mourning dove now building her nest; a forecast full of life-giving rain; and the delicate petals of a tulip, just unfolding–each of these is a sweet promise for the dawn of a new morning.

First Signs

Winter’s still got a pretty tight grip on St. Louis for now, but there are signs everywhere that the thick of it has passed and we are on our way towards springtime. This year there’s even hope for an early one. Some of the signs that are popping up now aren’t unique to this particular year–the furry buds of the magnolia tree, the sunlight slowly stretching into the evening hours…

But some of what’s happening now isn’t always around this early. Green shoots have already broken through the soil of bulb gardens. Delicate snowdrops bloomed weeks ago, looking like little white bells on their stems. They hang their heads on cold days but perk back up with the touch of sunlight. Purple and yellow crocus dot the still-brown grass. Red-winged blackbirds have already appeared in St. Louis, making their migratory journey a little bit earlier this year. The groundhog predicted an early spring, too, and after a few days of single-digit temperatures, it’s feeling like a good year to be superstitious.

Winter Berries

The winter palette of soft blues and browns hasn’t frozen fully over quite yet. A few brilliant colors hang on. The temperatures have been relatively mild so far this winter, but these particular pops of color will hang around to brighten your garden no matter what the year is like: winterberries and beauty-berries.

Unlike the well-celebrated evergreen hollies of Christmas displays, these two plants do not sport the winter leaves that make English holly such a staple of holiday decor. Their colorful berries hang on long after their leaves fall away.

Winterberry plants are dioecious, which means each plant is either male or female. The female plants produce plump, round berries that look like scarlet marbles. They show up in late summer and stick around all winter long. Once their leaves have fallen, their vibrant color shines from a mile away, even against the oranges and reds of autumn. And in wintertime, they’re really the star of the landscape. There are all kinds of cultivated varieties to choose from if you want to add them to a yard or garden, and they’re beneficial to birds as well as native to Missouri.

Beauty-berry plants are hard to miss. Their berries are an almost-neon shade of magenta, and they grow in big, fat clusters. The clusters grow all the way up and down the stem, with an inch or two of bare stem between each little group. It looks like a plant from some sort of Dr. Seuss fantasy world. Even when they’ve still got their green leaves, these extravagant plants are eye-catching when the berries start showing up in late summer. The berries hang on for months and only bite the dust when the cold really settles in. People have put this plant to use throughout history for everything from bug repellant to rheumatism. And animals look to them as a source of food during the winter–their berries are eaten by squirrels, foxes, raccoons, opossums, and all kinds of birds.

But even if it weren’t for their importance to nature, these bright berries are appreciated for another reason: it’s a common belief that the winter landscape is bland and bare. The color of the winterberry and beauty-berry is at odds with that.

An Unexpected Bloom

As the last of the leaves finally fall from the trees, our eyes scan the landscape for any remaining scrap of flower, leaf, or weed still hanging on. There’s not much left, but one peculiar flower stands out: witch hazel.

Witch hazel is a native Missouri shrub with a spidery little bloom that creeps out when everything else has died back for the winter. You’ll see them appearing right when it seems strangest to see flowers: some bloom in late fall, others in the very dead of winter. They are strange, spindly little explosions that look like something that ought to be growing under the sea, usually a deep berry red in the middle with yellow petals that stream out from the center like a firework.

It’s not only the blooms that are unusual. Witch hazel is well-known for its medicinal properties. Its bark is often used to treat swelling or skin irritations. And its fruit is just as strange as its flowers–as the fruit ripens, it swells up and explodes, shooting the seeds out and away into the distance where successful seedlings won’t have to compete with the parent plant for sunlight and soil.

But now, in winter, as the sky grows grayer and the landscape grows browner, its greatest intrigue is in its fragrant yellow blooms, a pleasant surprise for any keen eye.

Winter Moves In

By now, the sky is dark at five ‘o’ clock, and a week of rain and wind stripped the last of the leaves from their trees. The world outside the window is looking an awful lot like winter. The ground is not yet frozen, and a few hardy plants hang on. Birdsong still rings through the air on a sunny morning or a stormy afternoon. But anybody could tell you that winter is moving in.

There’s an irresistible temptation to head inside as winter approaches, and it’s best resisted by abandoning efforts to dress nicely and donning your biggest coat, no matter how ugly. But sometimes there is beauty in being driven indoors as well. In this frigid season, we don’t linger outside. We scurry from building to building. We clutch close our coats and our casserole dishes. We gather to feast, to laugh, and to be with family and friends. The Christmas lights go up to cut into the darkness of early nights, and we bring a little taste of nature into our home when we put up the Christmas tree. So even as the sunny days are disappearing, we fend off the shock of this first cold of winter with our own kind of warmth.