(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel February 17, 2008)
It's February and, while snow and icy rain may be covering much of the country, in Central Florida spring has sprung.
If seasons can be judged by the way plants respond to weather conditions, then winter is officially over in my neck of the woods.
Just look at mulberry, willow and maple trees to confirm the obvious: The bare tips of their branches swell with the promise of summer. The chokecherry, which must be among the least patient of trees, has been cloaked in a flush of young leaves for weeks. Its verdant garb presents welcome dabs of color to the still-somber winter landscape.
Three of the traditional seasons -- winter, spring and fall -- are condensed in the Sunshine State. Summer, of course, takes up the slack, stretching languidly across most of the year.
Around the end of December, deciduous trees begin their seasonal transformation. Pockets of color light up the landscape with autumnal displays of brown, auburn, orange and scarlet. But a Florida fall is short-lived. Most autumn leaves land on the ground by mid-January and winter -- what little winter we have -- is more likely to be counted by days than by weeks or months. Nighttime temperatures intermittently dip into the 30s or even the 20s but bounce back to the mid-60s and 70s during daylight hours.
I suppose that's why I was confused as I rode along Florida's Turnpike the other day. It seems like only yesterday I was driving along the same stretch of road admiring the autumn foliage.
"Are those red leaves I'm looking at autumn leaves or spring buds?" I wondered.
It didn't take too many miles before I answered my own question. They were new leaves. The warming days of early February must have sent maple trees into unfurl-the-leaf mode.
The young leaves of maples are a welcome sight. Bright crimson -- perhaps even more cheerful than their autumn counterparts -- they provide a leafy headdress for the branches and trunk.
There's something hopeful about spring leaves. With their uniform shapes and soft but vibrant hues, they give an impression of both confidence and innocence. There's expectancy inherent in each unfurled bud. Innocence lies in their relative purity. New leaves begin their lives untouched by bug or beetle. Caterpillars haven't chewed holes in them yet or built their tented hotels. Even birds' nests are a rarity until later in the season when the leaves have grown broad enough to provide protection and cover.
Gazing upon a springtime woods spotted with deciduous trees is like watching a room full of babies. As breezes ruffle their tender leaves, the trees shiver with excitement. Shimmering in the sun, their joy and anticipation of days to come is almost palpable.
Driving along the turnpike, looking out at a sea of trees, I find my thoughts drifting back in time to rides taken with my oldest daughter when she was just a child. Of my four children, it's my daughter who comes to mind when I look at spring trees. So many times we drove these same roads, and Amber, who is especially fond of the soft green color of young chokecherry leaves, would comment on the landscape view. Maybe it's the artist in her. Now a grown woman and accomplished muralist, Amber captures on canvas the magic that lasts so briefly in nature.
It won't be long before spring will be over. New seasons will emerge, not just the regular ones -- summer, winter or fall -- but a multitude of mini-seasons that highlight particular fruits, fragrances and flowering plants. Each period of time will have a special meaning, unique in its individuality and in the memories it triggers.
Time passes, as it should, and everything -- children and trees alike -- goes through a growth cycle, forming new leaves, shivering in the breeze and, ultimately, developing maturity.
No matter what month it is -- February in Florida with springtime beckoning or an August crush of summer heat -- how fortunate we are to be along for the drive, enjoying the view, savoring the moment.