The iris is the state flower of Tennessee, where I grew up. The classic color is purple, but my mother planted some unusual, beautiful ones on our farm. In addition to purple, there were peach-colored, yellow, and white ones. They were much bigger than the usual irises, almost like the orchid corsages you would wear to church on Easter Sunday.
I don’t remember where she got the starts for them. Irises grow from roots called rhizomes that spread out as they grow. When they get too thick, they stop blooming, so you have to thin them out periodically. Someone gave Mother the starts and she planted them in the yard beside the house. They grew and grew, blooming copiously every year. She thinned them and gave some to my sister Sherrie, who planted the starts at her house.
Years later the irises at Sherrie’s house got too thick, so she thinned them and gave starts to our niece Judy. Judy planted them at her house, and took starts with her again when she moved. Judy also planted some at her mother’s house. She sent me a photo last week, the one you see above–the irises are still blooming, still growing, years after my mother passed away. The sight of that iris took me back to the rows of flowers blooming bravely in the back yard, so top-heavy that the wind or rain would easily beat them to the ground. They bloomed in April in Tennessee, but are just opening now in cooler northern climes.
Mother loved her flowers, and irises always remind me of her. Happy Mothers Day to all.
The other day I was talking to a young woman in my company’s North Carolina office. I mentioned something about “redbud winter,” and she had no idea what I meant. She’s not from North Carolina but settled there after going to college in the state. So I explained about the “winters” that come during spring in the South, and she was enchanted. I’ll share with my friends in case you don’t know.
I learned from my mother that in the South there are always cold snaps in the spring that coincide with when various trees and bushes bloom. Redbud winter is the first one, when the redbud trees show their pinkish-purple blossoms. They look like purple flames by the side of the road or in the underbrush of the woods. A few weeks later comes dogwood winter, when the dogwoods open their lateral drifts of ivory flowers. They are my favorites, as elegant and spare as a Japanese ink drawing. The last one is blackberry winter, when the blackberry bushes bloom in late spring. When you see the blooms, you know there will be a few days of chilly weather.
One of the adjustments I’ve had to make to life in New York is that the whole spring season is very much compressed. Instead of six to eight weeks, commencing with forsythia and the blooming bulbs, and ending with wisteria and the trees fully leaved, there is a hectic period of about a month. This year everything was two weeks late due to the late snows we had. So now the ornamental trees are blooming at the same time as the forsythia and the tulips and buttercups. The willow trees are leafing. And the dogwoods have not yet appeared.
Perhaps the cold spell this week will be dogwood winter, and my favorite trees will bloom. No matter what may go wrong in the world, spring always manages to come somehow. And the patterns in nature don’t change. I can imagine my grandmother or great-grandmother looking out the kitchen window at the dogwoods blooming under the taller trees, and saying to herself, “It’ll be cold tomorrow.”
This spring is a bit out of control, too early, too much, too warm too soon. The last few days we’ve had a cooler spell here in New York, which reminded me of the “winters” Mother taught me about.
Spring in Tennessee normally comes in an orderly, predictable fashion. Usually it starts in February with the forsythia and crocuses blooming. By March spring is well under way, with gradually warmer periods interspersed with cool spells. The redbuds bloom, then the dogwoods. Finally, in April the blackberry bushes flower.
Cool spells tend to come right when these bloom, and apparently this was always so. Mother and my aunts and uncles all referred to “redbud winter,” “dogwood winter,” and “blackberry winter” as if these were known dates on the calendar. I suppose to a farming community they nearly were.
I guess this is dogwood winter we’re having now in New York, if such a thing exists up here. Everything is out of sync this year. The Bradford pears (stinky, showy things) burst into bloom two weeks ago, along with the Japanese magnolias, which were nipped by the cold and have turned brown. Yet the dogwoods have not bloomed. So I hope they were spared the cold and will open soon.
Sometimes I feel very far from the farm. I’m glad to be working with my brain instead of my back, and God help anyone who had to depend on me to raise food! But I miss the patterns of planting, cultivating, and harvesting. There’s no seasonality to working on a computer. But even here spring intrudes, bursting out along the parkways, in yards, in the scattering of woods. It’s time to think about planting. It’s time to grow.