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blackberries

blackberries

“Blackberry winter” is a new season to me, but this colloquial expression is used in south & midwest North America. It refers to a cold snap that often occurs in late spring when the blackberries are in bloom.

Timing for blackberry blooms varies depending on the weather in your area and the variety. But in the warmer climates (USDA zone 7 and south) blackberries start blooming from mid-April to early May.

blackberry blooms

blackberry blooms

In cooler climates, like Paradelle, blackberries begin to bloom in late May and are not ready to harvest until around mid-July. Though the frost-free date here is May 15, there will be no blackberry winters here. It is more likely that in April our fruit trees, like apples and peaches, will get nipped.

Some people believe that a blackberry winter helps the blackberry canes to start growing.

Another blossom that can get hit with a cold snap in our region is the cherry blossom.

The cherry blossom is a mainstay image of spring in haiku poetry. Japanese cherry blossoms and the tradition of flower gazing, or hanami, has inspired poets for centuries.

Mount Fuji seen through cherry blossoms

Mount Fuji seen through cherry blossoms

cherry blossoms scatter–
snap! the buck’s antlers
come off

without regret
they fall and scatter…
cherry blossoms
~ Issa

Very brief –
Gleam of blossoms in the treetops
On a moonlit night.

A lovely spring night
suddenly vanished while we
viewed cherry blossoms
~ Basho

Drinking up the clouds
it spews out cherry blossoms –
Yoshino Mountain.

Petals falling
unable to resist
the moonlight
~ Buson

Cherry blossoms at Branch Brook Park, NJ

Washington D.C. is famous for the thousands of cherry trees sent there as a gift from Japan before the World Wars as a gesture of friendship. It is far less well known that Branch Brook Park in Newark, New Jersey has more cherry trees than Washington D.C.

But if you are in that warmer climate and you get a late cold snap so that a little “winter” hits during spring,  you have “blackberry winter,” although there are other names for this weather anomaly: “dogwood winter,” “whippoorwill winter,” “locust winter,” and “redbud winter” are all variations.

As with the different nature-oriented names for the Full Moons that are based on locations, these names are based on what is blooming in regions during the typical spring cold snaps.

In rural England, this is called “blackthorn winter”because the blackthorn in hedgerows blossoms in early April. In Finland, this is a common occurrence in April or May. They call it takatalvi, meaning “back winter.”

Last weekend was Palm Sunday.  This week is usually a time of the year when my mind blooms. I wrote this a few years ago.

Palm Sunday

Moveable feast this Passover and Easter week.
No palms here but crocuses, wood hyacinths,
jonquils, cherry blossoms, a first bee buzzing.
Yew Sunday, Branch Sunday, triumph and victory
contained in a seed, bud, pollen, flower.

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Yes, the Earth is closest to sun on January 2/3 for this entire year, but don’t expect to feel it.

It certainly will not feel any warmer where I am (actually it’s colder than yesterday and tomorrow is even colder). This perihelion will happen at night (10:35 p.m. EST) for me and it will be quite cold then. (It happens on the morning of January 3 5:35 UTC in Europe and Africa.) Perihelion, from the Greek roots peri (near) and helios (sun), will bring us within 91,401,983 miles (147,097,233 km) of the Sun. Though we won’t feel any hotter, Earth is about 3 million miles (5 million km) closer to the sun in early January than it is in early July. This happens every year in early January. And we will be farthest away (aphelion) from the sun in early July. Seems counterintuitive to us in the Northern Hemisphere.

The difference in distance between perihelion and aphelion isn’t that much because Earth’s orbit is very nearly circular. That is why the tilt of our world’s axis is what creates winter and summer on Earth. My Northern Hemisphere is tilted away from the sun now, so it is winter.  The day of maximum tilt toward or away from the sun is the December or June solstice, but even that won’t make for the hottest or coldest days of the year. This tilting may make seasons, but atmospheric conditions make our weather change. I blame those Arctic blasts for my car’s dead battery this morning.

My earlier posts here about weather lore and how we sometimes forecast the weather for the upcoming months have been getting more hits lately. A glance at the sidebar list of popular posts will probably show that this month. People are worrying about what winter has in store for them.

You can define the end of a season in several ways. I wrote earlier about seasons that you can use the “meteorological calendar” to mark changes in seasons or the meteorological which makes the four seasons into neat three-month chunks of time.

But I like to examine a third way of defining seasons which is more fluid. It is phenology – the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events. The start of a season using this method is not based on set dates or a single event like an equinox or solstice. We look to the natural world.

You use this method, even if you never heard of phenology. You probably have watched the tree foliage changing color, the pumpkins ripening, flowers dying off, squirrels being crazier than ever and loving the falling acorns.

This is geographically specific observations. If I told you that the arrival of the first blackberry means that autumn has arrived, some would respond the blackberries appeared in July, and other people would say they ripen when the trees have lost their leaves in December.

Did you have a wet summer? Then you are likely to have a long, colorful autumn. Of course, a warm, dry spring could have prevented the sugars forming in trees which create those beloved autumn colors.

The maple trees usually turn first and then the beeches and finally the oaks give in November.

The trees know – or feel – that summer is over and stop producing the chlorophyll that gives them their green color. That lets the yellow to red pigments rule. Dry weather means more sugar which means more anthocyanins that make leaves red.

Observing nature in your area should be more accurate than any prediction about broader areas like the Northeast or very general ones about the United States.

Want to do some basic citizen science? Pay attention.

Now, it’s not strong scientific phenology but do the squirrels and raccoons have thick tails? That is supposed to mean a rough winter. Are spiders spinning larger than usual webs and trying harder to get in your house? More bad winter foreshadowing along with bees taking to the hive earlier. The popular predictors, the woolly bear caterpillars, better have narrow rather than wide middle brown bands so that winter will be less severe.

How about posting a comment on this post about your own personal sign of winter being “official” in your neighborhood?  My mom used to say it was after the third frost. It’s certainly not when Christmas decorations appear in stores or holiday lights get turned on in the neighborhood.

 

antler

Deer antler in velvet

When I first heard the term “velvet season,” I thought it referred to that time when members of the deer  family’s antlers are in “velvet.” I was wrong, but the seasons are related in calendar time.

Each antler grows from an attachment point on the skull called a pedicle. While an antler is growing, it is covered with highly vascular skin called velvet, which supplies oxygen and nutrients to the growing bone.

Once the antler has achieved its full size, the velvet is lost and the antler’s bone dies. This dead bone structure is the mature antler.

The velvet begins to form in spring and is shed at the end of summer and early fall depending on the geographic area.

After the velvet is gone and the antler is hard bone, the deer move into their rutting season. The rut is the mating season of ruminant animals such as deer, sheep, camels, goats, pronghorns, bison and antelopes. During the rut, bucks often rub their antlers on trees or shrubs, fight with each other, and herd estrus females together.

But the other Velvet Season is a term used for one of the most comfortable parts of the year for people who live in the subtropics, particularly in Mediterranean climate conditions. Their velvet season is a time when the weather is not as hot as mid-summer but is still quite warm, even at night. In northern latitudes with a temperate climate, the analogue of “velvet season” is “Indian summer.”

September Velvet Season on the Crimean coast

Velvet Season seems to be a term that appeared in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries in Imperial Russia. This was a time when it was fashionable to vacation in the Crimea and “velvet season” referred to several weeks in April and May, when the court and the royal family moved from St. Petersburg to the Crimea. It wasn’t deer antlers that were being referenced, rather it was the switch for the season from fur clothes to velvet ones. The Crimea at this time was still cool. They called summer in the Crimea calico or cotton season.

So, this autumn time we are in is technically not velvet season. Set aside the royal aspect and the spring velvet season became the time to travel to the Crimean coast. It is a short season –  lasting not more than a month and usually coincides with the last week of Great Lent, Easter and St. Thomas’ Sunday.

Perhaps for those of us in the northern U.S. our comparable “season” is that short period of warm weather at the end of winter or early spring. In Paradelle, that “false spring” is often followed by a snowstorm.

It is interesting that even in Russia, at some point the velvet season switched from referring to the spring to September when the crowds left the Black Sea coast and children went back to school and the upper class could have the resorts to themselves.

There is no such season as “Indian Summer” but if you live in the U.S. you have probably heard the expression used around this time of the year.  The U.S. National Weather Service defines this as weather conditions that are sunny and clear with above normal temperatures, occurring late-September to mid-November.

Indian summer has become the way to describe a period of unseasonably warm, dry weather in autumn that feels like summer. It is especially used when we have a warm period after a killing frost when we assumed autumn was giving us a taste of winter.

But why call it Indian summer?

In the late 1800s, an American lexicographer named Albert Matthews tried to find out who coined the expression. The earliest reference he found in print was a letter from 1778, but from the context it was clear that the expression was already in widespread use.

It is supposed that the origin came from areas inhabited by Native Americans (“Indians”) and that Indians first described this weather oddity to Europeans as something that occurred most years.

The expression has traveled beyond American borders. In British English, the term is used in the same way as in North America. Originally, it referred to America but it gained wider currency in Great Britain in the 1950s. In the U.K,. this period is also associated with the autumn feast days of St. Martin and Saint Luke.

You can view Indian summer as a cruel weather tease that reminds you of the summer days that are gone, or as a happy respite from the cooler “normal”  weather of that time and the days to come. I prefer the latter, though when Indian summer ends, I tend to go with the former.

Indian Summer is a romantic notion that has inspired a number of songs. Some of the better known examples:

  • In 1969, Brewer & Shipley recorded ″Indian Summer″ for their ″Weeds″ album.
  • In 1970 The Doors recorded ″Indian Summer.″
  • In 1975, Joe Dassin recorded “Indian Summer” in French, English and Spanish and  “L’Été indien” went on to become his biggest hit, selling almost 2 million copies worldwide – but the lyrics are about a summer in India, so…
  • In 1977 Poco released the album, Indian Summer, which also contained the title track.
  • In 1978 Joe Walsh recorded “Indian Summer” for the album But Seriously, Folks… 
  • U2 included “Indian Summer Sky” on their The Unforgettable Fire album.
  • The Dream Academy recorded the song “Indian Summer” for the album Remembrance Days in 1987
  • Tori Amos released “Indian Summer” on her 2004 EP, Scarlet’s Hidden Treasures.

I just felt autumn as the equinox just clicked over in the Northern Hemisphere at 4:02 PM. I queued this post for that time in advance so that I could stand outside and feel it.  Okay, it’s not true that you can feel or even see anything happen at that moment.  But…

The Autumnal equinox of September happens and the astronomical start of fall in the Northern Hemisphere (and spring in the Southern Hemisphere) for a brief time is “equal night” – a day of about the same length as the night.

For real, the Sun crosses the “celestial equator.” This is an imaginary line that marks the equator on Earth extending up into the sky from north to south.

It may not happen tonight or even the next few weeks, but the days and nights are somewhat cooler in Paradelle. The days are definitely getting shorter, though that is hard to observe on any daily basis. I already had to change the setting on the timer that turns on some lights in my house.

When I say that I felt autumn, it is because as I stood outside at that moment of equinox I saw the changes in the plants around me. My vegetable garden’s leaves are turning yellow. I will start pinching out some of the tomato plant’s flowers in order to send all the energy to the remaining fruits. Some of those will never turn red and I will pick them half-ripened to falsely turn red in the house. I’ll grab some green ones before the first frost (not due around here for about another month – but no one knows for sure) and make fried green tomatoes and pickle some of them.

The squirrels have increased their activity. The chipmunks seem even more frantic than usual.

The maple leaves are changing.

In the morning when I take my coffee outside to drink, I see a few insects clinging to the screens or window glass trying to grab some house heat overnight. I find a few insects in flowers that didn’t survive the night.

In Ancient Greek mythology, the equinox is associated with the story of the abduction of Persephone. She was taken from her mother, the harvest goddess Demeter, to the underworld to become the wife of Hades, the god-king of the underworld. Demeter eventually got her daughter back from Hades, but only for nine months of the year. So, every fall Persephone would return to the underworld to spend three months with Hades. During these months, Demeter refused to use her divine skills to make plants grow, explaining why we have three months of winter every year.

Mabon is a modern Neopagan celebration which takes place around the September equinox. It is one of the six Sabbats based on the cycles of the sun. The ceremonies are based on the myth of Persephone, and it celebrates the second harvest and the start of winter preparations.

Gather at Stonehenge or Castlerigg and watch the sunrise. Respect the impending darkness; give thanks to the sunlight.

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