February and Spring is Stirring
Perhpas we have not seen the last of winter here in Massachusetts, but the days are growing longer. Last year at this time, we had over 80" of snow. The lack of snow cover this year is startling to any gardener, who prefers that a nice blanket of snow covers all important perennials and protects them from drying winds. It also provides a good measure of moisture, seeping into the ground at the first thaw. We are now experiencing signs of spring, besides the almost freakish warm temperatures.
One of the first signs of spring that I see in my daily walk is the emergence of skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). It is frequently seen in frozen swampy areas in March, but this year, it has emerged early. It is sometimes hard to see, as it generally sends up its purplish hood which often blends in with the dark water that surrounds it. It is one of a few plants that can generate heat - causing the air around it to rise between 15 to 30 degrees above the prevailing temperature. Because it is warmer than the surrounding air, a plant part known as the spathe, or hood, and which acts as a shield for the flower inside, attracts early pollinators such as flies and bees. It emits a foul odor, which also entices insects to its lair. Other names for this plant, such as Hermit of the Bog, Meadow Cabbage, and my favorite, Pole Cat Weed, are apt descriptions of this stinky plant. The large leaves, when they unfurl later, are smelly indeed if they are broken or bruised. The native Americans thought this plant to be a magical talisman, as well as potent medicine. In the 19th century, it was used for respiratory diseases and nervous disorders, among others.
Also occurring in February is the emergence of the groundhog, a weather prognosticator believed by some to predict the end of or continuance of winter. There is a German proverb that says,
"The badger peeps out of his hole on Candlemas Day, and, if he finds snow, walks abroad; but if he sees the sun shining he draws back into his hole".
Though our groundhog is not the same animal as a badger, it is probably this long held belief that was transferred to a similar critter in America. It is interesting to note, too, that Feb 2, or Groundhog Day, has its roots in the European tradition of Candlemas, also on Feb 2. Candlemas was the mid-way date of winter, occurring between the shortest day of the year and the sping equinox. Pre-christians knew this time as the Feast of Lights, with winter giving way to spring and an increasing of the warmth of the earth from the strengthening of the sun. Light is often preceived as a protection from illness and famine, and this tradition has always been associated with candles, or in earlier times, bonfires. The Romans lit candles at this time of year to ward off evil spirits. Brigit's Day is an old pagan holiday, honoring the Irish goddess of poetry, healing and smithcraft, and was celebrated by the lighting of sacred fires. Crosses of straw or wheat were also hung to protect the home. In fact, there was a saying associated with Candlemas as hope for spring:
"A farmer should, on Candlemas Day
Have half his corn and half his hay"
Surviving the winter meant careful rationing of the stores of corn and wheat, using enough to get by but trying to ensure it would last until the earth could be worked again. Early Christians absorbed these traditions and used the day of Feb. 2 as the day Jesus was presented to the Temple. Jewish custom was for a baby to be presented to the priests 40 days after birth, at which time the mother was also "purified". This date was convenient, as it took into consideration the old rites of rebirth and coincided with the 40 days after Dec. 25. It became known as Candlemas, and candles were brought to the churches to be blessed.
Spring will come, whether we see any more wintry weather or not. I have been working often in the greenhouse, starting seeds and readying for the upcoming planting season. Many of us are rejoicing in the fact that our energy costs have been lower due to the milder temperatures. Snowdrops and other early plants are venturing out, and hopefully we will enjoy more even temperatures as the month goes on. Here's to the groundhog - and the other signs of spring.
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