Cherry blossom time

Our Weeping Cherry tree started to bloom on March 28, an old lady now yet still graceful. She has a voluminous floral dress spread wide from her ‘hips’ by branches like the hoops and side panniers of a woman in the court of George III. She cheekily displays through the cascade the one silvery leg she stands on. We hope she dances in the spring breeze for more years.

The same day, the National Park Service announced the famous lines of cherry trees lining the National Mall reached peak bloom. Fewer people stroll there in a pandemic year but can view them at #BloomCam. This year the blossom that celebrates beauty and grace is a brilliant contrast to the chaos and violence viewed from the Mall of the Capitol steps on January 6. But it also symbolizes the impermanence of life.

The trees were gifted to Washington DC in 1912 by the Japanese, who celebrate bloom time with spring festivals (hanami). This year the peak occurred in Kyoto on March 26, earlier than usual, as in the Mall. Bloom times have been recorded in Japan for 1,200 years. The date varied depending on when winter lost its grip, but on average stayed constant over centuries or rose slightly until the 19th century since when it has steadily advanced.

The ancient recorders of first blooms and shoots could not imagine why they should interest us today. But there are no more blazing signs of a  warming planet than trees exploding in color. On March 28, Red Maple buds burst at Mechanicsburg, PA and Pawpaw at Gibsonville, NC, although Redbud is still dormant at Spring Hill, TN (already rose pink here in Williamsburg, VA). If you doubt our climate is changing, ask the trees.

Virginia Nature Journal for March

Daffodils stanza 1

DaffodilsThe poem was inspired by thousands of wild daffodils blooming in woods around Ullswater in the Lake District of England in the spring of 1802. I imagine Wordsworth on horseback in a tightly-fitting frock coat, pantaloons and hessian boots, while his sister, Dorothy, rode side-saddle in a redingote and floppy hat. When he came to compose Daffodils two years later, he drew from her journal entry, though it was the remembrance that inspired a reviving experience:

Daffodils stanza 4

They are pretty lines that schoolchildren have read ever since they were published. We love them because daffodils herald the joyous season when nature is reborn.

Wandered lonely as a cloud continued

The yellow trumpets looked like a friendly crowd of people nodding and dancing as the pair rode past them on the lakeside path. In previous centuries, the woods and countryside almost everywhere were regarded as fearful places where highwaymen lurked and superstitious people believed goblins would trap an unwary traveler. But the poet was making a fresh and romantic connection with the spirit of nature, just as the cheerful days of spring follow the dark, northern winter. Wild plants, birds, and animals were not aliens after all, but fellow creatures that celebrate rebirth in their own ways, just as the Wordsworth family would at Eastertide in St. Oswald’s Church, a few steps from home in Grasmere.

The Wordsworths lived during the Little Ice Age which began after the Medieval period and lasted until about 1850. A diarist of the time wrote that just three years earlier, “No vegetation in the fields, nor blossoms upon the fruit trees, on the 7th May, 1799. The skins of upwards of 10,000 lambs, which perished in the spring, were sold in this town. The weather was cold and wet all through the year.”  The weather is particularly fickle in the Lake District, even by British standards, and then as now there was much variation from year-to-year: the years 1800 and 1802 were much warmer and drier. It’s hard to make sense of climate change from a few sample years, or predict what the next year will bring.

The month of March is a time when people living in the Northern Hemisphere look forward to the first blossoms on plants and trees. Unfortunately, the dates of blossoming have not been recorded as assiduously over the centuries as temperature (continuously logged in the UK from 1659), yet they are vital for monitoring whether seasons are changing and for anticipating impacts on agriculture. Phenology is the name of the science that records blooming and ripening times, and when animals migrate and start breeding. Think of cherry blossom in Washington DC and California poppies on the West Coast.

We mark this month on our calendar for planting in our veggie garden, or moving a coffee table outdoors or cleaning the barbecue grill. The natural world is no respecter of the calendar, but watches the auspicious cues of daylight and weather to make a more sophisticated calculus than an old farmer’s almanac. Project Budburst draws on this natural wisdom  by recruiting citizen scientists across the United States to collect “phenophase” records of when the first buds burst, flowers open, and fruit ripens in their locality. As the database swells, an impression is gained of nature’s “sensibilities.”


Weeping cherry, Williamsburg VA (April 4, 2015)
Weeping cherry, Williamsburg VA (April 4, 2015)

Spring burst upon us suddenly up and down the eastern seaboard after a cruel winter. Our weeping cherry tree blossomed today like an Easter bridal veil, a full ten days later than after the mild winter of 2010. Likewise, the daffodils that are often finished before Easter, are today still bright and cheerful with only a few trumpets curling in the sunshine.  Yet nature often fools us because bloom dates do not always conform to our perceptions of what the weather has been like or where climate is heading. As one of spring’s harbingers, daffodils will contribute to the unfolding of science, but will always provide “jocund company” for poetic hearts.

Next Post: Naturalists called to the wild side


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