Coneflowers Appear

A true sign of summertime has arrived in the prairies and glades of Missouri: the coneflower. The first few blooms have just begun to unfold. They’ll be here all summer long, drifting in thick seas of prairie grass like purple jellyfish.

Coneflowers are also commonly called by the scientific name of their genus, Echinacea. You might recall seeing that word in the tea or supplements aisle at your local grocery store; their extract is commonly used as an immune system booster. In living form, they’re best known as purple flowers, but there are varieties that produce orange, white, and yellow flowers as well. These colorful blooms are popular with pollinators of all kinds, from butterflies to hummingbirds. In the fall, the seeds still clinging to the center of the flower are a welcome feast for other birds as well; goldfinches in particular seem to be fond of them.

But fall is a far-off notion as we dive headfirst into June. After a prolonged chill in the air, a lengthy spring season seems to be behind us. It feels like we are heading into high summer at last, and the arrival of the sun-loving coneflower confirms that. They’ll stick around until August or September, soaking up all the heat they can get.

Return of the Leaves

It starts off slowly at first: a vague green mist collects around the tiniest twigs. At this stage, you might look out the window and miss it entirely. At a distance, the trees look bare as they have all winter. But a keen eye will see those leaflets the moment they burst from their buds.

Next the baby leaves take their shapes. No longer are they indistinguishable specks. They grow large enough that you can tell a maple leaf from a tulip poplar. In their first weeks, their color is a vibrant, waxy green, almost neon. That bright green is what makes the landscape look like the spring that you envision when someone says that spring is their favorite season––dogwoods and redbuds are in bloom, tulips and daffodils dance in the grass, and those young leaves sparkle in the sun whenever a breeze blows.

Slowly, they grow, unfurling day by day. A leaf looks like one of those magic grow foam capsules you’d throw in the bathtub as a kid, stretching out as it fills up with water, steadily taking its shape.

And now they’ve arrived, here in full. It seems like it happened suddenly and slowly all at once. Just four weeks ago, there were hardly any leaves to speak of. Now, they’ve lost their neon tint and will only grow a deeper, darker green from now until the heart of the summer. But perhaps the most beautiful thing about their return are those things that we cannot see. There’s the smell of fresh, living leaves in a gentle spring rain; there’s the rush of the wind rustling through them. Step outside today and give those leaves a listen––that’s a sound we haven’t had the pleasure of hearing for nearly six months now. Its return is one of the many welcome songs of summer on the horizon.

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.

A Season of Bronze

Record low temperatures and two whipping windy snowfalls brought autumn’s flaming colors down to the ground. Last week saw the peak of color in St. Louis. Then, on Monday, white snow came down to mingle with the falling leaves, and the flakes took the reds and the oranges down with them.

Even within autumn itself, there are four seasons. First comes the season of dusty green, September’s hint that summer has come to a close. Next comes the season of yellow, with the locust trees and the sycamores. Then come the oranges and reds of maples, ashes, and oaks. Last of all is the season of bronze.

It’s this last season that we are in right now. Only the deepest reds, the darkest yellows, and the rustiest browns hold onto their branches. Already, many look outside their windows and declare that fall is over and the color has passed.

But really, it’s just a different kind of color. Subtler, softer. Less loud. Earthy browns against a pale blue sky. Autumn is exhaling. It’s during this quiet time that winter will sneak in right under our noses. But anyone who would say that the fall color has gone for good need only look to see the copper-orange needles of a bald cypress backlit and flaming in the soft light of an early-setting sun.