Blackberry Winter

Have you heard of a blackberry winter? It’s the name for an out-of-place rush of cold that comes late in the spring to make sure you haven’t forgotten what it feels like. Blackberry winter is spring’s equivalent to autumn’s “Indian summer.” It’s named after the blackberry blossoms that will wither in this unexpected cold.

It has other names, too, depending on who you ask. Some call it “linsey-woolsey britches winter,” and they won’t pack away their long underwear ’til it shows its face and passes. It’s safe to say—to hope—that this wet and shivery past weekend was our blackberry winter, and the cold is behind us once and for all.

The animals seem to think so. As the weeks have grown warmer, the babies have started arriving. Young squirrels are huddled up in their nests, many still too feeble to climb. Opossums ride along safely in their mothers’ pouches. Baby robins are everywhere, learning to fly. Foxes are still tucked away in their dens, as baby rabbits are in theirs. In the coming weeks they’ll all emerge with confidence, ready to take on the world. Ready to live, to eat, and to avoid getting eaten.

For now, most still depend on their mothers. But blackberry winter is past. Close quarters aren’t so cozy when it’s hot outside. It’s time now for us to put away our sweaters and long underwear, time for the critters to step out into the world they’ll learn to live in. This is the moment their mothers have been waiting for all winter long. It’s the moment that millions of years of their species’ survival has come to: the beginning of new lives.

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.

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.

Here Come the Storms

Driving rain and roaring thunder kept quiet all winter. Finally now, they push the silent snowfalls and feeble drizzles out of the picture. Springtime storms have arrived with a bang.

In St. Louis, we all have a story about a close encounter: a flood in the basement, a tornado in the neighborhood, hail the size of baseballs. We’ve seen it all, and we’re not afraid anymore. Who doesn’t like a good storm every once in awhile? To Midwestern folk, a big blasting thunderstorm is a little bit like a holiday that you can’t plan for.

The birds stop singing. The leaves start to fly as the wind whips up, and you know what kind of storm is coming. People get excited. It’s a special occasion—everybody’s day revolves around the same event.

And we’re stubborn. Even as the first drops fall and the thunder starts to rumble, you’ll see neighbors out and about walking their dogs, just strolling along without a hint of panic in their step. It’s only when the downpour starts that we finally step inside to stay dry. The whole family gathers around the big picture window or pulls up a chair on the front porch to watch the storm. You wouldn’t want to miss it.

Then the lightening bolts flash across the sky and the thunder grows from threatening grumbles to splitting cracks. This is when dad will say “Count the seconds between the lightening flash and the crack of thunder. For every five seconds, the storm is one mile away.” You count and count, and soon the sound and the light are simultaneous. If you close your eyes, the spray of the rain blowing up onto the porch makes you feel like a fisherman at sea.

Even when the sirens come on, most people brush them off. But if the storm gets serious enough, everyone will hide in the basement. Mom is excited to bring out her emergency crank-powered radio. The wind howls. Hail hammers the siding. And when it’s all over, everyone creeps out together, puts their hands on their hips, and surveys the damage.

Sometimes there are branches down over here and shingles gone over there; hail dents in the hoods of the cars who don’t have garages. Other times there’s hardly a sign at all of the storm that just raged. The golden sun lights up the wet streets, and the raindrops on the grass and windows sparkle. The birds start to sing again, and we know that the danger has passed.

Watching a thunderstorm brings a different kind of satisfaction. Tending a garden or walking in the park reminds us that, in spite of our urban environment, the natural world is always there to welcome us back. But a storm proclaims nature’s power. It brings us the story of a different kind of world, a world where nature calls the shots. And it reminds us that that world still exists.

Sweet February

February’s got a bad reputation. It’s wet and dull, and somehow every year it’s colder than we remember. But beyond the grey skies and the dirty roadside snow, new life is beginning in the branches above us and the burrows below. Lots of animals—woodchucks, minks, screech owls, opossums, rabbits, coyotes, American woodcocks, salamanders, flying squirrels, mourning doves—are mating this month as they prepare to bring forth new life in springtime. And there’s life at the heart of Missouri’s sugar maples in February too.

When you think of maple syrup farming, it’s probably Canada or New England that comes to mind. In fact, it’s possible to tap sugar maples in Missouri too, and February is the time to do it here. The thaw of February’s slightly warmer days paired with its freezing nights is the perfect recipe to make the sap flow more freely than it does any other time of year.

maple leaf filledYou can tap trees yourself, but make sure you read up before you dive in. You should know, for example, that you shouldn’t tap a tree that’s less than a foot in diameter. And don’t plant a new sugar maple, either—they’re somewhat of a problem in Missouri because they spread like wildfire and cast too much shade for a healthy amount of forest undergrowth to survive. But if you’re lucky enough to already have one on your property somewhere, February is tappin’ time. Right the middle of winter, tapping a sugar maple can bring you the same satisfaction as tending a summertime vegetable garden. It’s a lot of work, though—it takes around 40 gallons of sap to boil down to one gallon of syrup!

But plenty of people who live in the city don’t have a sugar maple in the yard—if we even have a yard at all. For us, it will have to be enough to remember that new life is on the way, and that even now, at the core of the sugar maples, golden sap runs through the veins of a living Earth.

Frozen Frogs

In the rain and snow, a hush seems to fall over the neighborhoods. The leaves aren’t there to rustle in the breezes, and the stray cats and little squirrels hide away. The people, too, are huddled in their dens, curled up in some quiet corner.

There’s one particular critter who hides especially well: the spring peeper. These frogs are native to Missouri, and they’re strange creatures. They snuggle into winter shelters of leaf piles, logs, and tree trunks, and won’t make a sound all winter. Along with a handful of other frog species, the spring peeper survives winter by going completely dormant–and even freezing through.

During their frozen slumber, the spring peeper is saved only by glycogen, a natural sugar in the frogs’ blood that acts as an antifreeze. This is just enough to keep ice crystals from forming in their vital organs. Its breath and heart have slowed to an almost undetectable rate, and the energy needed to keep these systems running at all comes from the same sugar. It ferments in their bodies and provides just enough energy to keep them alive.

The spring peeper runs out of glycogen stores right around the time that the first hint of warmth creeps into the air. So in the last days of winter, the spring peeper will miraculously thaw and awaken like the pet project of some mad scientist. This is where it gets its name: in that season of uncertainty, halfway between winter and spring, it emerges from its slumber and utters its call—a sequence of short peeps. The call of the spring peeper is said to be a sure sign that winter is relinquishing its bitter grip, and spring is on the way.

In the meantime, they sleep alongside the warmblooded hibernators in their shelters, waiting. And we wonder at a tiny frog who, for all our strength and smarts and stamina, would outlast us on a cold winter night.

The Tease

What a relief it was this weekend to recall what a warm day feels like. The wet smell of a living, thawing earth had everyone acting like it’s early May. Every sidewalk had its runners. Cyclists wore short sleeves. Daydreams of springtime took shape at the seed stand at Home Depot, where a miniature crowd had gathered to size up the vegetable options. Even the birds, perhaps smelling that same thaw, sang with optimism.

Every winter we get a a sensational pop of warmth out of nowhere. Every winter, no matter how many years it’s turned out to be dead-wrong in the past, people catch that glimpse of sunshine and start predicting an early spring. And when you’re outside in a single layer of clothes for the first time in months, warm and sunny and light as a feather, you’re convinced. The warmth is on its way. It must be.

It’s a dream that rarely comes true. Anyone who got out and tried to get some yard work done this weekend can tell you that the ground is still frozen totally solid at just an inch or so deep. There are dip-downs to the teens and twenties on their way, and chances of snow pepper the forecast.

But there’s no reason to be depressed about winter continuing. After all, January has hardly even been put to bed. A winter that ended this early would disturb the animals who are still trying to get some rest. It would call out too early to the seeds brewing underground, waiting for the sign to push their way up. No, for now we just have to be patient, and to understand that winter is not opposed to life, but part of the cycle of life itself.