Emerald August

In late July and early August, the trees are rich. Their emerald leaves shimmer in the rain and in the wind. It’s the deepest, greenest time of year. Now, late August is here, and with it the first signs of a changing season. If you close your eyes, the sound of the locusts and the weight of the humidity tell you that it’s deep summer.

But a keen eye will tell you something’s shifting—look down, and you’ll see that slowly, very slowly, the least healthy of the leaves are browning, and still-green acorns litter the sidewalks. Even more striking, though, is the dulling of the leaves. The sycamores were some of the first to fade. The tips of the gingko leaves are rimmed with yellow now. You won’t see it if you’re looking at the whole tree, but get up close enough to pluck a leaf. The little fan looks delicately dipped in paint. The locust trees are yellowing, too, and soon their little leaves will start to swirl, falling and flecking sidewalks like leftover confetti from last night’s party.

Those trees are the most pronounced in their changes, but now the others begin to join them. Look closely and you’ll see that those lush leaves are starting to get dusty. They’re not yellow yet, they’re not falling, and most of them won’t until mid-October. It’s still summer, without a doubt. But the seasons don’t just stand still—they never do. And so the trees trade August’s luster for September’s dust.

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.

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.

The Last Gift of Christmas

A Christmas tree has adorned the White House practically every year in American history. As far as we know, there have been just four years that the White House didn’t have a tree, and Teddy Roosevelt is responsible for three out of the four. They say that the nature-loving president saw deforestation happening in the name of the tradition and refused to get behind it.

These days our Christmas trees come from farms, not from wild forests. From time to time, somebody who’s thinking along the same lines as T.R. will say that they like to reuse an artificial tree  instead of cutting down and killing live trees year after year. But all things considered, nowadays a live Christmas tree is more environmentally friendly than an artificial one by a long shot. An artificial tree is usually used for about 10 years. Once it’s discarded, its plastic branches will shine unscathed in a landfill for a hundreds of years to come. Your live tree will decompose naturally, and it’s doing good for the earth long before you’re cutting it down. Trees take 7-10 years to grow to marketable size, and they spend their lives putting out oxygen into our atmosphere and soaking up carbon through the soil that surrounds them. They improve the landscape for wildlife, too–your Christmas tree might’ve been home to birds who spent their summer at the farm. The demand for live Christmas trees increases the number of trees planted. Every year in the United States, 100 million Christmas tree seedlings are planted and 40 million are cut in winter. 

It’s hard work to grow marketable trees successfully. Farmers spend a lot of time carefully trimming the trees to get that ideal cone shape. In spring and summer, common pests like wasps and worms have to be removed. On a pesticide-free farm, this means picking off bugs and fungi by hand. The changing climate is making farmers’ job even harder. Dry conditions are bad for tree growth because evergreens need a lot of water to thrive, and some farms’ crops have suffered. Pea Ridge Forest, located in Hermann, Missouri, is a popular destination for St. Louis families who want to choose and cut their tree on-site at a farm. At Pea Ridge, the dry summers and mild winters of recent years have made it increasingly difficult to grow successful crops of Christmas trees. This year, the farm bolstered their own crop with trees shipped from Michigan and the Carolinas.

In colder climates like those, it’s much easier to grow fir trees. Growing firs here in Missouri takes lots of extra water, sometimes even the installation of irrigation systems. It’s much easier to grow pine trees here, so the Scotch pine in particular is a popular choice for Missouri farmers and their customers. Pine trees are the most resistant to warmth and dryness, which also means they’ll hold their needles the longest after they’re cut. Our homes are way too hot and dry for an evergreen’s liking, so it’s good to take this into consideration when you’re thinking about what kind of tree you want and how long you want to have it displayed. Firs will hold their needles second-longest after the pines, and the spruces come in last.

Inevitably every year comes the twinge of sadness when you must take down the Christmas decorations, and the tree along with them. Most of our decorations are packed away safely for the next year. It’s only our live Christmas trees to which we must say a permanent goodbye. But while the ornaments and ceramic Santa Claus sleep packed away and useless til next winter, the Christmas tree makes itself useful in a new way. It can be turned to mulch for next year’s garden. It can be burned as firewood. If you want to provide winter shelter for birds and rabbits, you can lay it down in your backyard and leave the strings of popcorn for them to eat. You can also donate your tree to be recycled by one of the city parks. 

Even if you don’t make practical use of your tree, the last Christmas gift you give each year is to return a real tree to the earth from which you cut it. No matter where the tree ends up, it will rot away and give back to the earth the gift of the nutrients it borrowed while it was living. And this period of decomposing and giving back will last long past its fleeting moment of glory in your bright front window.

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.

The Ginkgo Tree

50458318_1197927653704274_8575911579613134848_nOn autumn-evening walks down city sidewalks, look down and soon enough you’ll see the fan-shaped leaves of the ginkgo tree. They’re always laid flat out on the ground like they were placed there for you to notice. If you hold one in your palm, you’ll feel how soft and smooth it is. You’ll see all its fibers reaching up and out from the stem towards the edges of the leaf like the rays of a green sunrise. It feels delicate. The truth is, the ginkgo tree is far from frail. Its history is a tale of steadfast survival.

The ginkgo gets its name from “Ginkgoaceae,” a plant family from back in the Mesozoic Era. The Mesozoic Era ended with what’s called the Permian-Triassic mass extinction, but the on-the-nose name for this event is “The Great Dying.” They don’t know exactly what caused the devastation. Some think volcanic eruption, others say a mammoth asteroid. What they do know is that the oxygen levels all over the Earth—in the soil, the oceans, the air—were horribly low, and the oceans were exceptionally acidic. That was the recipe that wiped out three-quarters of the plants and animals on Earth. Every other species in the Ginkgoaceae family was squashed. Only the ginkgo tree we know now hung on through the sick soil and the acid-oceans to be called a living fossil today.

We weren’t around to witness the grit of the ginkgo tree then, but in the 20th century we tested it ourselves. In Hiroshima, Japan, six ginkgo trees within a mile of the 1945 atom bomb explosion survived. In an instant, the bomb turned a bright and living city into a charred, colorless landscape, peppered in the following weeks by black rain, kicked-up ash, and poisonous air. Nearly every living thing at that proximity was killed at the time of the blast, and many of the people who survived the impact were later killed by radiation.

The ginkgoes survived the blast. They survived the pummel of poison that followed. Like everything else, they’d been burnt and broken. No one suspected they were anything but dead. Then, like a tiny breath, green leaves sprung from the scorched branches.

Those six trees are still alive today. The trees’ survival was cherished as a miracle, and the trees were consciously protected during rebuilding efforts. One of the ginkgoes was growing next to a temple that was destroyed by the blast. Instead of cutting the tree down when the temple was rebuilt, a double staircase was designed to encircle the ginkgo at the temple’s entrance, honoring it as an example of the persistence of life. A hole was made in the floor of a new factory for one ginkgo; a hole was cut in the roof of a temple to allow another of the surviving ginkgoes to grow as it wanted without impediment. These trees brought hope in a time of devastation, and in return the Japanese have treasured them ever since. Each of the surviving trees is now marked with a plaque.

With any luck, those six ginkgoes will be around for a long time—it is not uncommon for ginkgoes to live to be over 1,000 years old. It is the ginkgoes’ extreme hardiness that makes them so good at surviving the city. They can handle terrible air and soil conditions. That’s why you always see them planted in those little 2×2 dirt patches along the sidewalk.

Have you ever gone to the zoo and looked in wonder at a gnarled, dusty reptile and thought to yourself how ancient it looks? They look to us like dinosaurs, like aliens from another time. Look on the ginkgo tree with those eyes, too. Any day now those fan-shaped leaves will turn butter-yellow and pave the sidewalks gold as the yellow brick road. As those leaves fall and flutter down like yellow swallowtails, remember that the pretty ginkgo is no fragile beauty, but a revered ancient survivor.