A Long Summer

October 1st. It is 93 degrees. This kind of heat at this time of year feels unusual, like an Indian summer of sorts. But that term refers to an unseasonable heat that comes after a frost, and we’ve stayed well above frosts so far. Tomato plants are still blossoming, jalapeños still ripening.

It’s a bit uncertain where the term “Indian summer” comes from, but many cite the possibility that this heat-after-frost phenomenon is not common in areas where colonizers came from, so the event may have been named after the Native American misnomer, “Indian,” in whose native North America the belated heat wave is a relatively common occurrence.

A persistent heat, however, a heat that doesn’t let up for this long, is not normal for the Midwestern part of the United States. At least, it wasn’t until recently. In the past several years, the heat has stuck around, sometimes spiking into the eighties all the way into November. The climate is changing, and with it, the plants. Climate scientists at the Missouri Botanical Garden have noted that in recent years, a number of plants that should not be able to grow here have been doing just fine at the Garden. For decades, St. Louis was considered a zone 5, but it is now considered a zone 6. Even that is being pushed now as horticulturists find that zone 7 plants are able to thrive in the Garden.

The cold will come, so enjoy the warmth for now. Have a beer on the porch, grill in the backyard, and take advantage of the extra weeks of harvest. But don’t look at this as another endearing Midwestern weather fluke. Our autumns are growing shorter. That is the unfortunate truth.

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 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.

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.