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 holly berry, these two plants do not sport the evergreen leaves that make holly such a staple of festive displays. 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.

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.

First Flowers

It only took a week above freezing and a few warm rains to coax the ice out of the ground once and for all. Finally, the earth can be turned over and worked. Anyone with a garden can tell you that—they probably spent a giddy weekend with their hands in the dirt. People creep out of their homes and into the sunlight in slowly-growing numbers just to be outside. Just to look.

Still the green holds out on us, but little hints of color are popping up here and there to bring the news of the thawed soil to the surface. The delicate white snowdrops were the first to arrive a couple weeks ago. Now the daffodils and crocuses pop up out of the grass. Violets, tulips, and irises won’t be far behind. These first flowers are a promise: the big blooming is well on its way.

First, as always, there will be more rain. More mud. More cold nights. Spring is still quietly creeping out, and the people in the city are wary. They aren’t gonna greet it ’til its arrival is more obvious. When spring arrives in full sun and full color, you will no longer be alone with nature when you go outside. The bombastic, lively spring that we’re all waiting for could hit any time—and when it does, it’ll bring crowds out in droves. Every restaurant patio will be bustling. Every path through the park will be jammed. For now, let that little bit of light left in the sky at 7:30 be reason enough to take an evening walk. Go out into the quiet world and find those first whispers of spring.

Mud Moon

It’s this time of year more than any other that our four clean-cut seasons just don’t do the trick. Anyone who pays close attention knows that the earth doesn’t change like the flip of a switch. In these strange, soggy weeks it is clear: we are neither in winter nor in spring.

These are the days that are neither too cold to bear nor warm enough to stretch out and sigh. The temperature changes so quick each day that you can’t wear the same coat at midday that you do in the evening. The trees remain leafless, but they’re all budding. Flowers are nowhere to be seen, but the grass is turning greener. This isn’t winter as we’ve gotten to know it, but we know better than to call it spring. This is a season of its own, a totally different thing. This is the season of mud.

Everywhere you look, the earth is in-between. The mud is the one thing you can count on. Beneath the greening grass, the ice is cracking. The cold, hard ground is beginning to give. It softens. Water seeps up and out of the ground almost endlessly. And it rains all the time—even more water, falling always from the sky. Wet, wet, earth. Meadows and soccer fields take on the look of a marsh. You can imagine frogs living in these puddles, herons perching on a dry patch. It is a soggy time.

The gloom of these watery days isn’t dreary enough to hide the magic that they’re full of. The squish of the mud beneath your shoes means a ground chock-full of the ingredients for growth. The water is just the beginning. Life itself began in the waters of the oceans. It only makes sense that this new spring should begin with a flooding of the fields to set off the new round of life. Winter is over. This is the time of the Mud Moon.

At Long Last, March

March! At long last it’s here, and with it comes a feverish itch for spring’s arrival. Even though we should all know that spring won’t really be here ’til the end of the month, something about changing the calendar has changed our outlook, too. It doesn’t feel like winter; it feels like spring is here and any wintry behavior is a personal injustice to us and our March. We’ve all noticed that the sunny days are becoming more commonplace, and we’ve seen the buds appearing on the trees. Now is the time to start thinking about repotting, starting seeds inside for the garden, adding to the houseplant collection.

But even as this last of winter dwindles and we look forward to spring, let’s not forget that on the other end of summer, you’ll be hearing folks saying “I’m ready for fall,” “ready for sweater weather,” “ready for a break in the heat.” Nothing’s more natural than pining for the return of visible, tangible, new, green life to our world. But while we wait, think about the good things about winter: the crisp, refreshing shock of stepping out into a winter morning. The disappearance of biting bugs. The absence of sweat and heat exhaustion. The soft blues and browns of a sleeping landscape. The silver sparkle of frost and snow. Now months into a gloomy winter, these are the beauties we’ve gotten used to and forgotten. Treasure the last of them, for they won’t return for a long time now.

A Feeling Brewing

We got a sunset on Saturday that stopped people in their tracks. Another rainy day was fading without fanfare when the sun broke through. The light turned lavender and late-evening-yellow all at once. Heads poked out front doors at the sight. Neighbors stepped outside into a warm humidity they hadn’t felt in months. They walked down the street and stopped to talk about this welcome change of pace. Some folks tried to take pictures that didn’t turn out. A camera can’t capture a light so peculiar that everybody stops to look.

Those strange minutes faded away with the sun.  A nasty wind howled all night and brought the cold back with it. But we felt spring’s coming. Hints of it are creeping into town: Look outside at 6 p.m. and you’ll see a well-lit world. And the early-riser is just now getting relief from pitch-black mornings—by now, quarter to 7 shines with the full light of day. Listen on a sunny day and you’ll hear bird calls you haven’t heard in months—the mourning doves and the cardinals are singing. The cold weather won’t be leaving anytime soon. But there is a feeling brewing that we have crested the peak. We are creeping now toward spring.