A quarter century ago I was the landscaper for a collection of old ladies my wife referred to as “your harem”, and though they are long gone they have left memories scattered about my yard. Below is an early bloomer one lady gave my wife, that she referred to as “miniature marsh marigold”.
Actually it turns out to be an invasive species, Lesser celandine, (Ficaria Verna), and belongs over in England. Wordsworth wrote a poem about it (“To The Small Celandine”) with this stanza:
Ere a leaf is on a bush,
In the time before the Thrush
Has a thought about it’s nest,
Thou wilt come with half a call,
Spreading out thy glossy breast
Like a careless Prodigal;
Telling tales about the sun,
When we’ve little warmth, or none.
Actually I should scold that old lady for giving us a plant which is currently invading the back lawn and killing the grass. It only lasts until June, and then withers up and leaves a dead-looking place. But I’d rather smile, and remember how that silver-haired hunchback would come out with a cup of tea for me and involve me in discussions about poetry, as I weeded. I figured poetry-talk was an extra benefit of having me as her landscaper. I could chatter as I worked, and it even excused me for the time I stopped working, to sip some tea with dirty hands. Not that she’d ever just fork out the bucks that would have let me skip the weeding, and just write. But I forgave her for that. I think young poets get over that resentment once they are over thirty, and I was pushing forty, though working for old ladies made me feel a lot younger.
In April I’d go from being on the verge of bankruptcy to having too much work, from being disdained to being hugely popular. The old ladies would become wildly ambitious with the first hints of warm weather, and I often had to act like the sage, old man, reining them back. The worst year was 1990, when we had a record-setting, early-April hot spell with temperatures up over 90° F, and my elderly customers felt like putting out tomato plants. I warned them it could snow the following week, and when it did snow I looked very wise.
This year it wasn’t so hot, as it only got up to 77° on April 1st, but the following cold did set records, as it only could get up to 26° during the snow on April 4, and had dropped to 4° on the morning of April 5. (Concord, New Hampshire; official NOAA statistics.)
A 73° swing in temperatures is very hard on plants, especially plants from western Europe, because the Atlantic protects Europe from most arctic blasts. One European plant (nearly invasive, though few call it that,) that got hit hard last week was the daffodils. They are designed to spring up before the trees have put out their foliage, in sunny places that will turn into shady places as the trees leaf out, and, because they come out so early, they’ve been created to withstand frost, and even a moderate freeze, but the extreme freeze they were hit by in New Hampshire this year was like nothing their ancestors ever experienced on the shores of the Mediterranean. It seemed to rupture whatever holds them up, at the bottoms of their stems, and they all fell face down. Some that were buds still had enough remaining capillaries to bloom, but they lack charm when their blooms kiss the dirt.
Some others look like their buds are going to simply turn brown, and not bloom. Having such dismal failure follow high hopes was a significant setback to manic, maypole moods.
Old-timers like myself anticipated a second setback would be the cold rain that always comes, as the warm weather tries to push back north. There have been years when the maps show warm fronts up to New Jersey, and even up into Massachusetts, that never quite make it this far north. One needs to make a study of cold-loving plants, if one wants to start a garden, and the old-timers tended to just chuckle at the “flatlanders” who came up to New Hampshire and wanted to get going in their gardens before Memorial Day. Many old-timers would make a day of putting their garden in on May 31, in one big rush, and by July their gardens were doing as well as the gardens of people who hurried things in April and early May. (In fact some warmth-loving plants like peppers seem to sulk if chilled, and never do all that well, if put out too early.)
When the warm fronts stalls south of us, all we get is a cold rain. Because my Farm-childcare focuses on the outdoors, we are not stopped by the slighter rains and mists. One thing I have found enchants the children is to follow a stonewall through the damp woods, looking for signs of life.
Besides the lichens and mosses, it has seemed the local plants have more sense than the European imports, and are holding back. Even the swamp maples only raspberry-misted the tips of their silver branches with swelling buds during the mold spell, but didn’t burst into full bloom. Down in the swamps skunk cabbage is blooming, but that is an uncanny species that creates warmth, and can actually melt its way up through ice. All in all there is a sense everything is about to explode, but is not quite there yet. Of course, this doesn’t keep the exploration from being fun.
And then, at long last, the pussy willow (Salix Discolor) bloomed. An older girl noted them at the very end of a day, and I immediately had my next day all planned out.
However the slighter rains gave way to not so slight rains.
When all the world is getting drenched, we don’t go out more than we have to. It is not so much that the children mind getting drenched, as it is they tire of being drenched fairly swiftly, and then it becomes a major project drying all their cloths for the next adventure.
In every rain there are times when the downpour slacks off, and you can go for short walks before rushing back, when the rain starts up again. The pussy willows were too far away for such a walk, but I like to take the kids out and show them how every drop on every twig has an upside-down world within it, with the sky at the bottom. Its something most people walk by all the time and never notice, but you don’t have to go far from shelter to see it.
And just because it is likely wise to avoid drenching children, hunting pussy willows, it does not mean I can’t drench myself.
April’s cruel teasing has made the blooms bow
Face down in the mud, and the peeping frogs
Have gone silent, but time has taught me how
To tread a stream-side’s sedge and rotted logs,
Wading through a wet day with hopeful eyes
Seeking the gray, silver-fox fur of buds
Among the jewels of a hanging surprise
On every twig. On every twig the mud’s up
And the sky’s down as clear drops magnify
A topsy-turvy world, each drop dark-topped
And silver-bottomed, and, as I press by,
All drenching me until my joy’s unstopped
And I decide it’s not such a bad life
If I gather pussy willows for my wife.