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.

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.

Wildflowers Dominate

This kind of heat isn’t friendly to fragile beauty. Mild weather flowers and cool weather crops have burnt brown in the sun. A humid evening at a summer wedding has the groomsmen itching in their suits and the bridesmaids sweating off their makeup. It’s a hard thing to look shipshape in late July.

But not all living things are deterred by this weather. At this time of year, the wildflowers thrive. Primrose, cardinal flower, and columbine endure in rocky glades and creek beds. Vibrant butterfly weed and blazing star dominate the prairies. The coneflowers are particularly radiant, shooting up past the sky-high grass to get their daily dose of sun.

These flowers are a far cry from a delicate iris or a fragrant rose. They’re sometimes scraggly, often unkempt. But they require no attention and get on just fine without us. In midsummer, they overtake our wild landscapes. They know summer is no time for measured elegance. It is for growth, for life, for movement, for color. A time to leave the air conditioning behind and to jump in the pool, sweat in the sun, and, when the night comes down, to lay down expended in the dew-soaked grass.

Fleeting Flowers

The daylily buds have been swollen for weeks, and now they are finally blooming. It’s been an unusually mild and rainy June, but the arrival of the daylilies is sure sign that summer has indeed arrived.

It’s hard to find a flaw with these flowers. They do best in full sun, but they do fine in shade, too. Their cascading green foliage sticks around even when the flowers aren’t in bloom. They can tolerate both oversaturation and drought.

Easy as they are to grow, they’re not a common-looking flower. Daylilies can be huge, opulent, multi-colored, and fascinatingly ornate. There’s a kind for every inclination–they’re easy to hybridize, so there’s a wide variety to choose from. It’s so surprisingly simple, you might be tempted to try it yourself.

First, choose the two daylilies that you want to cross. Take the anther from one daylily and brush its pollen on the stigma of the second. It’s as simple as that. You’ll know you’ve succeeded if a seed pod appears on the pollinated plant. You can harvest those seeds once they’ve matured and plant them. Now comes the hard part: you wait. Even if the daylilies sprout that first year, they won’t necessarily bloom. So it will probably take 2 years or more for you to see the results of your experiment.

The one flaw of the plant is in its name. “Daylily” comes from its scientific name, Hemerocallis, which translates to “beauty for a day.” Each flower blooms for just one day before it starts to close, wither, and fall away. It will soon be replaced by a new bloom, so the plants manage to remain colorful through the whole blooming season. Still, these fleeting flowers advise us that even the strongest among us are only here on Earth for a short while. It’s a gentle reminder to enjoy each beautiful thing in its own brief moment.

The Bees Are Back

The sun returns with a buzz. The buzz of the weed-whacker. The buzz of your neighbor’s lawnmower waking you up on a late Saturday morning. And the buzz of the bees, zipping through gardens and bumping into bushes.

You might wish you could banish stinging bugs from your yard entirely. But bees aren’t aggressive. They’re just fuzzy little fellas minding their own business and working the day away. They might give you a sting if you don’t respect their space, but that’s not so different from a house cat.

Unless you’ve had your head in the sand for awhile, you know that for quite some time there’s been an effort to educate the public on bee benefits after some alarming numbers came out about declining bee populations. Now the general consensus seems to be that the bees are on the upswing, but there’s a lot of uncertainty. Overall, it seems that the commercial honeybees that we use for agriculture are doing fine these days, and, in Missouri at least, our native bees are doing better too.

Still, it doesn’t hurt anything to give them a little extra help. Yards and gardens will benefit from having more bees around, too. You can help them out by laying off the pesticides. If your vegetables are being attacked by pests and you have to use some, it helps if you wait to spray until dusk when most bees are back home inside the hive for the evening.

If you have a yard or a balcony, you can also give native bees a boost by planting native wildflowers. A few of their favorites are butterfly milkweed, blue wild indigo, aromatic aster, and purple coneflower, among others. They tend to like bright colors—so much so that you might even find them landing on your shirtsleeve if you’re wearing something bright blue or yellow. Don’t swat them when they do! They’ll figure out where they are in no time and buzz off to the next flower, then the next, and back to the hive, where every worker bee supports the life of all the others, and where the colony together supports the life of countless plants.

The Last Frost

April 15th is the average last frost in St. Louis. But we know that date is no promise. In the past couple weeks, the temperature sank close to freezing more than once. April rains are unpredictable, sometimes bringing in cold; other times warmth. Days drop 30 degrees without warning.

But the winds are changing. More and more often, the warmth sticks around for awhile. The weather blows over, defying forecasts for thunder and rain. You start to feel bold enough to leave the house without a jacket.

Those who plant peppers, okra, or other heat-loving plants find a little more certainty at the end of April. The seeds of these plants can’t survive the cold and shouldn’t be planted outside until two weeks after the average last frost. With April 15th two weeks behind us, we have made it. And it’s not just the gardeners that know it—every creature has figured out that it’s safe to come out. Early blooming trees like magnolias have already lost their blossoms to the green of their leaves. The bees are back and buzzing in the sun. Birds we only see in springtime are passing through now on their way back up North. Azaleas are in full bloom.

This is spring as we dream of it through winter. Not the uncertain spring of March and April—the flowering, bustling, breezy spring of May.

Flowers on the Dogwoods

The slow slide into warmth this year was easy on the living things. In recent years, winter has turned to summer with a sudden bang, leaving spring almost totally out of the picture. But this year was different, and the flowers are showing it.

The dogwood trees are part of that exhibition this year, blooming in full swing right on time for Easter Sunday. The dogwood does best in the upper South because it needs humidity to thrive. Missouri is the perfect climate for the dogwood tree, so it seems only right that we’ve claimed it as our state tree. It’s in our area that they grow to their tallest potential.

When the tree thrives as it does here, it gives a lot back to its welcoming home. The most obvious benefit of the dogwood is its beauty, and it’s easy on the eyes all year round. Pink and white varieties dot the landscape in springtime. Once the flowers fade away, the dogwood bears a bright red fruit in summer. It’s technically edible, but its terrible taste makes it pretty much off-limits for humans. After the fruit comes the color—the dogwood’s got bright red leaves in fall. Even in winter, the wide, spreading crown of the tree reaches outward in a graceful pattern.

Dogwoods benefit their environment beyond the surface level, too. They’re good for attracting pollinators, especially bees. They also give a lot back to the soil they’re planted in: dogwood flower petals are packed with nutrients, and after they fall, they decompose more quickly than most other tree flowers. That means they make a quick job of enriching the soil they’re planted in. In fact, they’re such efficient soil-revivers that sometimes they’re specifically selected for rehabilitation projects. So enjoy their blooms for now. And when all the petals start to come down in the coming days, remember that the soil that they fall on is receiving a gift—one that will give back to the tree and anything lucky enough to grow near it.