Holiday Guests

Each year, those plants that are too loved to be lost to winter are tenderly collected from the backyard or balcony and brought indoors. They congregate in our window sills or among the mugs left out on the kitchen table, and on cold, grey days we welcome their company. Come December we invite a couple of holiday guests to our growing indoor winter garden.

The bright red poinsettia is one of these visitors, and it’s a strange one to have received this honor. In the United States, the poinsettia is so closely associated with Christmas and wintertime that its own natural habitat seems to us like a mismatch. Poinsettias come from Mexico and need to be treated like the tropical plants they are. They prefer a hot, wet environment, so they should be kept away from drafty windows and misted regularly. It’s a lot of trouble to make the bracts turn red like that, and that task is usually left to the experts. But anyone who’s got patience and a willingness to fail can have a crack at getting this year’s plants to redden again next Christmas.

It’s a complicated process: After the season’s over, the leaves will fall. When that happens, cut the stems down to just a few inches high and keep the plant pretty dry and out of the sun. In early May, freshen up the compost and put the plant in a new pot. After repotting, water thoroughly and regularly whenever the soil starts to feel dry. When new shoots appear, choose the four or five strongest and remove the rest so they don’t have to compete for space. Now the poinsettias will grow, but they’ll only turn red again if you carefully manipulate the light. The last week of September is game time. The plant must be kept in complete darkness for 14 hours each day. To make that happen, you have to cover the poinsettia with a dark plastic bag from early evening til morning every day for eight weeks. Then treat it like normal again. If all goes well, your poinsettias will be red again in time for Christmas.

Since the early 1900s, one family has dominated the poinsettia industry by mastering the plant’s complicated cultivation. The Ecke family developed a way to grow a bushier, more attractive plant and kept their technique top secret for for decades. In the 1980s, a graduate student named  John Dole cracked the code and published his findings. They finally had some competition after that, but to this day they rule the poinsettia industry. The Eckes are also responsible for the popularization of the poinsettia as a Christmas plant in the United States. They began referring to it as “the Christmas flower” and went to great lengths to send them to popular magazines and television shows to be featured during the holidays. Paul Ecke Jr. was so determined to have the plants featured in women’s magazines that when they told him that their holiday photoshoots took place months ahead of time, Ecke Jr. specially cultivated a new group of poinsettias that would bloom out-of-season in summertime.

If you’re one of the people that brings these living decorations into your home each year, you don’t have to be bothered by the absurdly early Christmas displays pushing into your peripherals from the moment Halloween is over. The live poinsettias will only blush red for this brief season, so when they start to pop up in the grocery store, and the fir trees are riding around town on the roofs of the family cars, those who take them in know that Christmastime has truly arrived.

The Birds That Stick Out Winter

Cold mornings are quiet enough that your ears wake up at the sound of your feet crunching the frost on the grass. The usual morning ruckus of rustling rodents and twittering birds and the foot-thud of early morning joggers has gone. Here in the city, you hear only the wind zipping through the tree branches and the distant rush of the nearest highway. If you stand still and watch your breath form a cloud in front of you, you’ll start to think you can hear the sound of those tiny crystals fizzling out into the air.

The stillness might make you feel as though all the life has rushed out of the city. But really St. Louis is just welcoming a lively flock of wintertime guests. A number of birds that spend their summers in the northern United States and Canada are just now coming to town. Some of the more common visitors are the dark-eyed juncos, mallards, common mergansers, tree sparrows, fox sparrows, white crowned sparrows, golden-crowned kinglets, and cedar waxwings. Wintertime is your chance to catch a glimpse of these visitors.

Even the birds who were here with us through the balmy spring and summer have not all gone. Some birds stay in Missouri year-round, taking a chance on unpredictable St. Louis winters. They aren’t singing much anymore, but if you keep your eyes peeled, you’ve still got a good chance of seeing blue jays, mourning doves, song sparrows, tufted titmice, chickadees, American goldfinches, northern mockingbirds, white-breasted nuthatches, and, of course, the bright red cardinals, who will be the first to sing again in February. These are the friends that stay and stick out the winter along with us.

You might wonder how in the world these tiny creatures survive the bitter cold in their outdoor homes, and in fact we’ve stolen from them one of our best ideas for keeping warm: down coats and comforters. Feathers make great insulation, and birds maximize that effect when they fluff themselves into fat little snowballs. Feathers trap the body heat they make, and by puffing up like that, they create more air pockets between their feathers where extra heat can be trapped. That’s why in wintertime you always see them with their tiny heads tucked into their ruffled bodies, looking just mildly annoyed as they stand stubbornly steadfast in the bitter wind.

If you want to lend a hand to the birds this winter, you can keep food and fresh water for them in your yard, making sure to melt the water for them when it freezes. To attract a variety of birds, you should have a mix of nuts, seeds, and fruits. Sunflower seeds are a popular choice across species. You can also have some food hanging and other food just scattered, since some birds prefer to feed on the ground while others do not. And, on especially cold days when you pull out your downy winter coat, give a nod of acknowledgement to the birds you pass by on your walk to the bus stop.

Time to Rest

With Thanksgiving weekend behind us, a sense of pause falls over the city. While you sat on the couch recovering from your feast, you might have looked out the window and noticed the browns, blues, and deep golds that have finally spread across the landscape. It doesn’t feel quite like winter yet. The cold, windy nights still give way to the warmth of the sun most afternoons. But the colors tell us it’s time to get ready for the cold to come.

It’s during these last days of November that mammals seek winter shelters. In Missouri, we’ve got a handful hibernators: bats, groundhogs, chipmunks, and certain kinds of mice and squirrels are falling fast asleep and won’t wake up ’til springtime. During this strange coma, their heart rate will drop, their body temperature will dwindle, and their metabolism will slow. They can nod off all through the winter without waking up to eat. Skunks turn in for the season too, but instead of full-on hibernation, they fall into a lighter sleep called torpor. Skunks cuddle close in their dens with a handful of their kin, but unlike animals in full hibernation, a skunk is liable to get a move on every now and then to scrounge up a snack. Bears are in torpor mode, too. They wake up easily so that they can nurse and protect their cubs, which are born in their mothers’ dens during wintertime. They won’t go looking for food, though—they live off of their body fat all winter long.

For the plants, too, it is finally time to be still. Leafless grey trees and stiff yellow shrubs have us feeling gloomy, gazing out the window like we’re looking at a bleak display of decay. We think of death when really we should be admiring a landscape at peace in its maturity. The plants have spread their seed and taken in all the nutrients they need to pull through the winter. They’ve dropped their leaves to create a new wealth of fertility in the soil at their roots. Next spring they’ll have to start all over again. But for now, the frenzy of growth is over. Naked and relieved of the burden of leaves, it is time for the trees to rest.

And we will join the winter rest soon. A trip to the grocery store will hint to you that the city folk are nearly ready to settle in to their dens, too. The old ladies at the checkout send long lines of canned soup parading down the belt to the cashier. The young couples with drafty apartments are buying those window-sealing shrink film kits. A mother pretends not to see the reindeer cookies her daughter snuck into the grocery cart. On Sunday, an old man with his arms crossed stared for a long time at the greenery for sale outside Schnucks. After serious consideration, he slowly put a wreath in his cart, apparently deciding it was no longer too early to buy a Christmas decoration. The time to find warmth and rest has arrived.

Work for Wintertime

It finally feels it was long ago that the pools closed with the fading of the cicadas. The outdoor concerts and late-summer barbecues are over. The time to visit the apple orchards has now passed, and the pumpkin patches are picked over and empty. Even the backyard gardens have already been prepared for winter. As the days grow steadily colder, it isn’t as common to find yourself so effortlessly outside.

The greenery disappears and the campsites close, but the natural world remains just as ready to welcome visitors. And while it’s far too cold to spread a blanket and lounge in the sun for a leisurely picnic, it’s a great time of year to take on a task that gets your blood pumping.

In October and November, conservation organizations throughout Missouri put on “Honeysuckle Sweep Weeks,” where workers and volunteers remove and destroy the honeysuckle that chokes out other plants in our conservation areas, parks, and even roadways.  Even though it’s well-known as an invasive plant, it can be hard to see honeysuckle as the transgressor it is. Its sweet smell in summertime, simple green leaves, and plump red berries make it seem innocent and pleasant to us.

The truth is that honeysuckle is a tremendous problem that started with the uninformed use of it in urban landscaping, which led quickly to the rampant spread of this unrelenting plant to just about every surrounding natural area. Its leaves are its secret to success. They sprout much earlier and die much later than the leaves of plants native to Missouri. Those early leaves steal the sun away from the forest floor, casting a shade over native seedlings before the ever have a chance to see sunlight. That’s how honeysuckle’s tyrannical rule stifles new generations of native trees and shrubs. Even worse, those bright red berries are eaten by birds, squirrels, and other critters who spread the out-of-control plant far and wide.

Out at Shaw Nature Reserve, honeysuckle removal days continue through the winter, where the work will have you happy that you found your way outside. On a crisp morning, you’ll join other volunteers in helping to remove the invasive species from our forests. There’s plenty of ground to cover, so you’ll likely find yourself alone with your thoughts and your breath-mist in the air around you. The cold is quickly driven away by the working of your body and the fires burning nearby—the honeysuckle is burned once it’s cut. Soon cold air and the smell of wood-smoke fills your lungs, and your ears smile at the sound of those pretty red berries snap-and-popping in the flames. When the chopping is done for the day, you’ll cross your arms and nod your head in satisfaction when you see the cleaner landscape and realize that this is the way it is meant to be. The difference is dramatic.

If you want to volunteer at Shaw Nature Reserve, you can sign up for an SNR ecological restoration workday on the Missouri Botanical Gardens website. But even if you can’t make the drive, bundle up and check your own backyard. Late fall and early winter is a great time to look for honeysuckle—it sticks out like a sore thumb because it’s just about the only green thing left. You can also identify it by those red berries and by the odd interior of its sticks and stems, which have a small hollow hole at their center. Make sure to dab the ends of the cut stems with some kind of herbicide, or it’ll just come back stronger than ever. Put your gloves on, chop it down, and invite your friends over to burn it in a berry-crackling fire. There is still work to be done this winter.

Autumn Snow

November thirteenth in St. Louis and already it’s snowed twice and is predicted to snow again later this week. The Farmers’ Almanac says it’s gonna be a “teeth-chattering-cold” winter chock-full of snow, and seeing as the first snowfall in St. Louis doesn’t happen ’til mid-December during average winters, we are well on our way to prove the Almanac right.

The cold came early this year and came blowing in fierce. Just a week ago, the leaves were teetering over the peak of their fall colors. A few trees were still as green as they were in September. Then came the first snowflakes of the season on Thursday. But instead of waking up to a white winter wonderland, we awoke the next morning to a thick layer of leaves. Yellows, reds, and browns covered the ground with the same bulkiness of a blanket of snow, an absolute slathering. Many of the green leaves fell with them. The cold took them all at once. The leaf-drop was so sudden and so thorough that it seemed supernatural, and on Friday two girls walking home from Rosati-Kain looked up at the branches and spoke of a huge, lumbering creature in the trees cracking open a piñata.

The result of this mass falling is an unfamiliar musk hanging around the trees. We’re used to the crisp, bright, earthy smell that comes from crunchy, colored leaves. But walk through any tree-crowded area this week and you’ll notice a sort of damp sweetness kicking up, something like freshly mowed grass. That’s the smell of the leaves that were still green, dying now on the sidewalks instead of on their branches. That funk in the air and snow on the grass and legions of leaves on the ground, now graying-greens mixed with bright yellow, tells anyone who still dared to doubt otherwise that we’ve got an early winter on our hands.

Osage Oranges

Festive gourds appeared prematurely in grocery stores weeks ago, but the trees in the park catch up in their own time and decorate the grass with their own bulbous ornaments. Now comes the pop and splat of acorns, walnuts, and persimmons hitting the ground, and among them you might come across a cluster of those bright green, softball-sized brain-balls: the Osage oranges.

This tree and its oddball fruit are named for the Osage nation, a Native American tribe that sought out the tree for its wood. The wood of the Osage orange tree is perfect for making bows because it is especially flexible and sturdy. The bows made from this wood were so superior that trading records from the time say that an Osage-wood bow was worth a horse and a blanket. Today, its wood is still commonly chosen for tool handles or outdoor construction because it’s unusually resistant to rot and pests. On top of that, it will burn longer and hotter than any other North American wood. And the list goes on: a glue substitute can be made from the fruit, yellow dye can be extracted from its wood, and its thorny branches have made it popular even in areas it isn’t native to, where farmers will plant thick rows of it as a sort of natural barbed wire fence. It’s even been rumored to repel spiders (though that’s been debunked as probably nothing more than legend.)

Still, perhaps the greatest contribution of the Osage orange tree is the child it brings out in us all. People who, for decades, have felt too old to bring a ball along to the park, find themselves confronted by irresistible scores of lime green softballs falling from the sky and strewn across the grass. You can’t help but want to pick them up and chuck them up to high heaven. A walk through Tower Grove Park is testament that you’re not alone in that either. You’ll find the osage balls tossed, kicked, and carried far from their trees, placed balanced on fence posts, and left on the baseball field. Pick one up and toss it with your friend, or up and down in the air to yourself, or kick it along the sidewalk on your evening run when you greet one that’s rolled into the Forest Park running path. Juggle them if you can, and get your fill. They’ll only hang around until they’ve all been rolled, kicked, and thrown elsewhere.