Monday, February 7, 2011

Signs of spring

Mulberry trees are among the many plants that are responding to warm temperatures by sending out new leaves.

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel February 6, 2011)

It is only February, but the plants think it's spring.

The tips of the fig and mulberry trees have swollen with potential, as new leaves get ready to unfurl. Meanwhile, other deciduous trees have already completed the process. The tender, young leaves of maples and tupelos appeared weeks ago. They now cover the winter-bare branches with a blush of color.

Beneath the trees are weeds, those tenacious volunteers that thrive on neglect. Weeds have spread across brown lawns and bare patches of ground.

Plants are either extremely optimistic or very foolish. Don't they know it could still get cold?

Last year around this time, we had 10 days of chilling weather. Temperatures in the low 20s and high teens turned green leaves black and dashed the hopes of new buds that dared to emerge. That experience made me cautious. The plant world might be saying that spring has arrived, but I'm hesitant to believe.

Despite my hesitation, I was outside the other day pulling weeds, transplanting broccoli seedlings and planting pansies. It's hard to resist gardening with such beautiful weather, especially after an unusually cold winter.

Temperatures in the mid-60s to low 70s are enticing. Leaving my jacket on a hook in the hallway, I go for leisurely strolls, work in the garden or settle into a chair to absorb the day. Blue skies and bright greens herald the promise of spring. Even if the promise is broken, the pleasure of these lovely moments remains.

Back in December, our loquat trees were in full bloom. Clusters of lightly scented white flowers covered the branches. When winter arrived prematurely, the flowers withered. I couldn't help but wonder what would happen next. Would the trees recover? Would fruit ever set?

It is now February, the month when loquat fruit usually ripen. Clusters of flowers once again cover the branches. On some limbs, the flowers have already started to develop into small orbs of goodness. The crop will probably be later than normal, but there will be fruit. Unseasonable weather hasn't stopped the trees from doing what loquats do — flower, fruit and produce new seeds — just delayed it a bit.

I'm encouraged by how the loquat trees overcame the winter hardship. If another cold snap strikes this month, the same thing probably will happen again. The trees will respond with more flowers and an even later, smaller crop.

Plants handle adversity with amazing resilience. From my office window, I see the dead leaves of three kinds of gingers. At first glance, they look awful — all lifeless and limp — but upon closer inspection, I see new shoots emerge. The overall appearance is barren, but hope is afoot. Beneath the dead tops, new life has begun.

Maybe plants are neither optimistic nor foolish. They are growing organisms responding to internal triggers without the shackles of human thought. They go about their business without hesitation, without worry, without frustration. They simply live.

Weather is unpredictable, but plants are the essence of predictability and patience. No matter how extreme temperatures get, the plant kingdom responds with faith in the future. Spring will come. Plants will grow. They know it, and despite my hesitancy, I know it too.

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