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 Lightning Bugs Arrive

The nights, too, are warm now, and that brings the promise of life at its swarming peak. The bugs now return in great numbers. Bugs are cold-blooded, so some remain inactive when it’s under 50 degrees. With the chill is gone from the air, all creatures are safe to come out.

Bugs tend to be unwelcome at human affairs, but there are a few for whom we make exceptions. The firefly is one of these special few. Who can resist the beauty of the lightning bugs floating on the mist of a sticky summer night?

Long before they emerge to light up your backyard, lightning bugs are doing good deeds. Firefly larvae–glowworms–are carnivorous, so they feed on the pests and grubs that would eat up our gardens. It’s been said that when they do emerge as adults, it’s safe to plant warm-weather crops. The fireflies know that the cold snaps are over.

Lightning bugs love the humid weather that St. Louis summers are so well-known for. The stickier the night, the more fireflies you’re likely to see. And after a wet spring like this one, they tend to come out on the early side. Some have already been out and about in the daylight, just crawling around and getting familiar with their new world. They ought to be arriving in numbers soon, here to set our backyards twinkling. Haven’t they been there for every summer you can remember? Something about it sets your heart beating. They are tiny miracles, little glowing bugs that embody, perhaps more than any other creature, that simple magic of summer.

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.

Magnolias in Bloom

Here it is: the big bloom. It comes every year, and still it catches us by surprise. To see bright color outdoors is just so starkly and suddenly different.

The magnolia trees lead the march. Their flowers are not timid about unfurling early. They’re some of the first to show up, and they are unabashed in their splendor: huge, beautiful, and flushed with delicate color. Their big showy petals scatter all around the trees. If you pick one up, they feel thick and soft to the touch, almost like a thin strip of leather.

The magnolia goes back to ancient times. Those hardy flowers recall a time before bees were around. It’s believed that magnolias were pollinated mainly by beetles, and the flower had to be tough to survive potential damage from them. Today, the flowers help the magnolia thrive in a different way—those beautiful blooms mean they get planted and cared for by landscapers, horticulturists, and homeowners everywhere.

Here in St. Louis, two types of the tree seem to be the most popular: the star magnolia and the saucer magnolia. Saucer magnolias are the most instantly recognizable—their rounded petals fade from dark pink near the center to white at their ends. Star magnolia petals are long and white, and each flower seems to have dozens of them bursting from its center. You can count on saucer magnolias to bloom just about every year, and when those pink petals first appear, it feels like a promise that winter is over. Star magnolias are more sensitive and won’t flower fully if they are damaged by late frosts, but this year was perfect for them. Spring came slow, wet,  and steady. They’re so full this year that you might have noticed the trees blooming all over the city without even looking for them.

In this perfect year for the star magnolia, make sure to notice them in all their glory. These trees are picked out and planted especially to be seen in these brief weeks. Long ago, before landscaping, before people, even before the bees, these flowers existed for no one but themselves. How lucky we are that they’re still around, and now we get to enjoy them.

Bringing Home a Houseplant

It’s a good time of year to add new plants to your houseplant collection, and the garden shops know it. Their doors are wide open, and their shelves are brimming with bright green beauties. Before you buy one, there are a few things to consider.

For one thing, you’ll have to consider the amount of natural light in your home. If your home is well-lit, you can grow just about any houseplant—just make sure to tuck shade-loving plants away from the direct light of a south or west-facing window. If you don’t get much light inside, look into plants that do well in low-light. A few popular low-light plants are ZZ plant, snake plant, and spider plant. If you can’t stand to be limited by lighting, it’d be worthwhile to get yourself some plant lights.

When you’re choosing your plant, look really closely for pests. Sometimes it’s easy to see that a plant is unhealthy if it’s got yellowing leaves, brown spots, or wilt, but pests aren’t as easy to spot. A few common ones that pick on indoor plants are aphids, mealybugs, and spider mites. Spider mites are around a lot in winter because they thrive in dry air, so watch closely for those this time of year. They’re tiny, practically invisible little bugs who build little silky webs on plants. Sometimes you have to sit and stare for awhile, eyes peeled, looking for a sign of movement. It’s worth it to be certain. You don’t want to bring pests inside to spread to other healthy plants you already had. 

Once you’ve picked it out and made sure it’s healthy, ask the vendor if they have any information available on how to care for that particular plant. If you do pick out a plant that you’re not familiar with, don’t leave without finding out what it’s called. That way, you can at least look up how to care for it later. At specialized plant shops, they’ll be able to give you more detailed advice. Even if you’ve researched the plant ahead of time, it’s worth it to ask if they know when the plant was last watered, fed, or otherwise messed with.

When you get home, don’t tuck the new additions in with the rest of your collection just yet. It’s a good idea to keep the new plants isolated for a week or two. Setting them apart will remind you to pay special attention to how your new plants are adjusting to the air in your home. It also gives you more time to notice pests or disease that might spread to other plants.

If all goes well, your new plant will bring fresh, green life indoors. Spring flowers and new  growth is well on its way now, but if you don’t have it in you to wait another week for the color to come back to the landscape, you’ll have to go out and get your greens yourself.

First Flowers

It only took a week above freezing and a few warm rains to coax the ice out of the ground once and for all. Finally, the earth can be turned over and worked. Anyone with a garden can tell you that—they probably spent a giddy weekend with their hands in the dirt. People creep out of their homes and into the sunlight in slowly-growing numbers just to be outside. Just to look.

Still the green holds out on us, but little hints of color are popping up here and there to bring the news of the thawed soil to the surface. The delicate white snowdrops were the first to arrive a couple weeks ago. Now the daffodils and crocuses pop up out of the grass. Violets, tulips, and irises won’t be far behind. These first flowers are a promise: the big blooming is well on its way.

First, as always, there will be more rain. More mud. More cold nights. Spring is still quietly creeping out, and the people in the city are wary. They aren’t gonna greet it ’til its arrival is more obvious. When spring arrives in full sun and full color, you will no longer be alone with nature when you go outside. The bombastic, lively spring that we’re all waiting for could hit any time—and when it does, it’ll bring crowds out in droves. Every restaurant patio will be bustling. Every path through the park will be jammed. For now, let that little bit of light left in the sky at 7:30 be reason enough to take an evening walk. Go out into the quiet world and find those first whispers of spring.