“There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot” – Aldo Leopold
Are you familiar with Phenology? It’s one of the oldest of the environmental sciences, it’s the study of nature’s signs and how that relates to events in weather, plants, animals, and insects. For example, “a halo around the moon means precipitation is coming soon”. Long before weathermen, people had to be aware of nature’s cues to aid them in planning and planting their gardens each season.
Examples include the date of emergence of leaves and flowers and the first appearance of migratory birds. The National Park Service has predicted that the Cherry Blossom Tree peak bloom will be March 22-23 this year, some years the trees bloomed as early as March 15. The Park Service said that the warm start to this year has scrambled the regular development of the cherry buds, with them never actually reaching their winter dormancy.
The Cherry Blossom trees in my neighborhood bloomed the last week of February. The bright yellow blossoms of the forsythia are a harbinger of spring, usually around late March to mid April here in Maryland, they are also in full bloom this week. I was surprised to see a Bradford Pear tree on Maryland Avenue in bloom this week, also. Signs of spring in Wyoming: melting snow, skiing without a parka, mud, and blizzards dropping three feet of snow during lambing season.
My aunt and my mom were gardeners, their flower gardens were peaceful and beautiful. My Aunt’s garden was typical for the Greek Revival townhouses at 2 Louisburg Square in Boston. It was brick on 3 walls which were covered in climbing roses and Wisteria. A fountain took center stage with flowers and ferns everywhere. There is a small, private fenced park in the middle of Louisburg Square that the Mallards consider for their home in Robert McCloskey’s children’s book, Make Way For Ducklings. The park is a riot of color beginning in April with the blooming of Daffodils, followed by Azaleas and then the Dogwoods, a great place to sit on a bench and watch the birds.
Our yard was the bane of my brother’s existence as he had to mow once a week in summer, it took him all morning. My Mother’s garden was a tiny sanctuary in the backyard near the patio. It contained sea shells, crystals and fossils such as petrified wood in addition to a Yucca plant, Day Lillys, Roses, White Sage, and Daisies. She had pots of petunias everywhere on the patio.
They both grew up during WW2 and had a Victory Garden in their Los Feliz , California neighborhood near Griffith Park. Their hilly backyard contained Orange and Lemon trees, and Bougainvillea, which blooms in May. My grandmother had a green thumb so their garden provided most of the family’s vegetables. It was during her childhood years spent in California that my mother’s love of flowers, specifically gardenias began. Traveling in later years with my Mom and Aunt was always an opportunity to learn about the local flora and fauna, one or both would be the animal, flower, tree, or plant guide, they knew all the names. In California the most memorable are the ice plant and the Torrey Pines. In Hawaii, the Banyan and Monkey pod trees.
Red Sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in morning, sailors take warning is an old saying about the weather that my Mom would often recite. She would stand in our backyard, her hand cupped over her eyes, checking the sky for rain. A morning sky that is a deep, fiery red can indicate that there is a high water content in the atmosphere, so rain could be on its way. I learned “clear moon, frost soon” while “moon bathing” on a fall evening as a child, for fun we would “howl” at the full moon. We’d watch the squirrels in the fall, if they lay in a big store of nuts, it would be a hard winter.
One late August it snowed then was 70 degrees the next day. My mother was an amazing teacher of everything great in life, but her love of nature and the miracles that it possesses was probably my favorite. She had an incredible intuition about the natural world that showed in her garden and her love of animals. My Mom spent a lot of time outside in her garden, she would drink her morning coffee there listening to the birds. Happy Hour outside was always a joy with friends in the summer.
My garden in Hawaii was a little weird, I inherited a cactus garden along the driveway that my very young, bike-riding son fell into. The three foot tall poinsettias grew and flowered all year long under the louvered windows in the front of the house. There was a very tall Banyan tree that was planted on the east side of the property for good luck. My children delighted in hiding in the “aerial roots”, probably soaking up all of the tree’s supernatural powers and hoping for a “Menehune” sighting. According to Hindu lore, “the Banyan tree is said to fulfill all our wishes.” The Banyan is said to represent growth, strength, and self awareness, Buddha found enlightenment after sitting under the Banyan for 7 days. There were several Coconut palm trees that a local family would harvest periodically. The husband would climb the trees barefooted with his machete in hand. He would cut several palms off for his wife to weave a basket for the coconuts.
Next came the coconuts, usually about 15 from each tree. The Mangoes were the worst and the best, the best because, free Mangoes! The worst because they grew and ripened and fell everyday from May until October. The rotting mangoes smelled like a bad liqueur and the bees loved it. My four year old daughter was in charge of collecting mangoes until a rash appeared on her hands and arms, signaling an allergy. I was then in charge of mango disposal, our backyard was Pearl Harbor so I would throw the rotten mangoes in the water, the fish loved it.
I wish I had those trees now, I spend $10 on a bag of frozen mangoes at Food Lion for my morning smoothie. We had a banana tree that produced the best tasting bananas that I’ve ever had. I had orchids that grew on the rough bark from our palm trees, without any soil. The two Plumeria trees in my yard provided the fragrant flowers for leis for our guests to the island. My garden was a beautiful, fragrant, waterfront paradise that provided food and entertainment, even the infrequent sighting of a centipede couldn’t ruin the happy times spent there.
Hawai’i really has only two seasons, “summer” between May and October and “winter “ between October and April. The average air temperature in “summer “ is 85 degrees but the trade winds keep it cool. The Islands heat up in August and September, temperatures can reach the 90’s with the humidity. The temperature in winter drops to an average 78 degrees and the rains come, drenching rain. Swimming in winter can be rough at some beaches due to the high surf. Keikis (children) learn about weather from this saying, “if we see a Koa’e bird traveling far, it is a calm day. If there are Kukui flowers on the ground, it is a windy day. If the sky is grey and cloudy, there is a chance of rain.”
For centuries, farmers have taken their cues for planting times from nature. For example; plant potatoes when the first dandelion blooms and plant peas when forsythia blooms. This method of planting illustrates how so many natural events are weather related. Keeping a weather and planting journal is a useful tool in gardening. Phenology is a key component to life on earth. Phenology tracks the yearly changes in precipitation and temperature and the impact on plants and animals. Phenology is nature’s calendar.
Kate Emery General is a retired chef/restaurant owner that was born and raised in Casper, Wyoming. Kate loves her grandchildren, knitting and watercolor painting. Kate and her husband , Matt are longtime residents of Cambridge’s West End where they enjoy swimming and bicycling.