Sunday, May 24, 2015

Memory Day (Spring to Summer Flower Edition)

Every Memorial Day weekend, my grandfather would change the winter glass storm doors for screen doors, bring the window screens up from the cellar, and remove the dark cover from the glider on the front porch. It was the signal for summer.

 Hereabouts there's something blooming at all times of year, but the spring flowers are into their summer. We've got varieties of roses (yellow in front, red in back), Iris (though they tend to bloom earlier in the spring) and California poppies. We've even got purple sage (that's it above, along with the two flowers I'm about to mention.)

 But two kinds are dominant, and in our walks in the neighborhood, I don't see them as profuse (or even as present) as around our house. Nasturtiums (proper name Tropaeolum) are orange or orange and yellow striped flowers, with roundish green leaves. The stems are attached to vines which grow at an incredible rate that accelerated in April. They threaten to cover the back porch, and I confess to enjoy being surrounded by them in my usual chair.

 Nasturtium flowers are edible with a kind of peppery taste, and contain high amounts of vitamin C. We use them in salads from time to time.

The other kind is the Calla Lily. Before I came here, all I knew about calla lilies was what Katherine Hepburn said in Stage Door--it became one of the standard lines for Hepburn imitators. I first noticed them growing in the narrow strip between the north side of the house and the fence with the neighbor house. There's only one small door on that side of the house, from the garage, and access from the front through a small garden gate. This area has always been dense with bushes and, close to the house, with ferns. Back in the far western corner is where I first noticed a few calla lilies.

 They stayed pretty much on that side until recent years, then migrated to the front (also accompanying ferns) and now we have them in the back bordering the porch and near the small fruit trees (fernless however), as well as in the front under the picture window. They are strange and strangely beautiful white flowers on long stalks that can get quite tall. (The books say three feet, but several in the front this year were at least four feet.) I'm fascinated by their large leaves with their curves and folds. We seem to have the most callas in the vicinity. I don't know why. They are quite hardy and bloom for a lot of the year.

 Nasturtiums came from South America, calla lilies from Africa (though some species have been in northern parts of the US for a long time.) So I don't know where you draw the line on native plants. They probably do compete successfully with other flowers, though there are varieties scattered in our yards that I can't name that seem more like California flowers-- very complex, with bands and spots of colors, bell-like parts and other complexities, all so different. Even the wild iris are remarkable in their stripes and patterns, the subtle blend of colors.

 By contrast, I remember the flowers of my western Pennsylvania childhood as simpler: violets, daisies, profusions of dandelions considered weeds, the purple flowers I never knew the name of because they too were "weeds," flower beds of gladiolas and roses.

I was musing on this topic while out on the porch in April, on one of the rare occasions that I took my laptop out there (it doesn't do well in bright light.) What I was thinking of when I was out there watching and listening to what goes on around the flowers and trees was the profusion I recall--accurately or not I don't know, but I think pretty accurately.

 Here I watched a single wasp, and three bumble bees who are working the same territory but seemed to stay together at a respectful distance from the larger pollinator. I heard crickets, a fairly uncommon sound. The sight of a butterfly is rare, and the sight of more than one of any appreciable size is rarer still. In my childhood backyard and the adjoining field there were lots of bumble bees to watch and be wary of, and wasps and hornets were regular residents around the outside of the house. Lots of butterflies, large and patterned, all summer. Our neighborhood lore included the difference between Monarchs and butterflies that looked just like them. My favorites were the patterned butterflies in shades of blue.  (On the other hand, there were an awful lot of houseflies.)

 We've made things as bird friendly as possible here. I have a makeshift birdbath on an old picnic table and have watched birds splashing in it, though its been dry lately. I needed to find a smaller dish I can refill every day without drought guilt.

 But the birds who visit us mostly chirp--songs are rare. There were a lot more songbirds in the east, particularly where I lived in Pittsburgh. There were also cardinals and goldfinches we don't have here at all. (On the other hand, I can watch hawks circling above the community forest almost any day.) In spring however we do get species of bird visitors we may never see the rest of the summer, or rarely. And in April on the HSU campus I saw a pair of stellar jays--large jays, blue feathers--and heard what sounded like a macaw, or some bird call I remembered only from movies set in jungles or swamps. That was weird.