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.

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.

April Wind

The birds are back, the sun’s out early, and the flowers catch the eye of every passerby. People air up the tires and start biking to work again. Joggers whisk past on the sidewalk. Spring is a time of movement.

Even the air itself gets caught up in the hubbub. The rowdy wind blows itself breathless, sending pollen and branches flying; downing signs and power lines.

In Missouri, April is the windiest month of the year. Our state isn’t an especially windy one, but in springtime the wind has its say. On Saturday night, we heard it howling through the wee hours of the morn and flinging twigs against the siding. In the morning, debris was everywhere—branches down, internet down, trash blowing in the streets. Splintered reminders of the wind are still piled on the sides of the roads.

April wind isn’t always violent. Sometimes it’s a chill that brings a cold night in. Or a gentle breeze that swirls up little swarms of petals on a sunny day. But it’s always here, knocking the flowers off the trees as fresh green leaves begin to unfurl. April wind carries us from the chill of March into the green of May. The sails are full, and we are headed for summer.

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.

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.