Winter Solstice

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It hasn’t seemed like winter this December; more like a mild November with moody skies, soaking rains and even a few thunderstorms. What little snow fell, melted into the unfrozen ground. But the sun tells the truth as it rides low on the southern horizon. I always look at winter solstice (10:48 p.m. CST on December 21) as a milestone achieved: We’ve reached the time of peak darkness for the winter. And happily, though sunrise is still getting later, sunset began to lengthen on December 10th!  We celebrate solstice with extra candles on the dinner table, a glass of wine, and Celtic Christmas music.  

I look for the understated, sometimes harsh beauty of winter, and I like the extra hours of moon-watching. Yet, I impatiently wait for the seeds, bulbs, perennials and tiny creatures that rest in the dark earth to reawaken. In the meantime, I will try to appreciate the slate skies and spent plants that add their own stark loveliness to the winter months.

The mid-December moon is often visible during the day.

The mid-December moon is often visible during the day.

Joe-Pye seedheads.

Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium dubium) seedheads.

Flame grass seed heads.

Flame grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘purpurascens’) seed heads and leaves.

Fluffy goldenrod seeds.

Fluffy, soft goldenrod (Solidago) seeds.

A few seeds still cling to the soft, empty cup of a milkweed pod.

A few seeds still cling to the soft, empty cup of a milkweed pod (Aesclepias syriaca).

Ready for Spring

The sun rides higher in the sky and daylight lasts almost 11 hours, but those are just about the only signs of spring — and most of us long for a warm-up that stretches beyond a meager two days.  Last week brought “bookend” snowstorms:  6.4 inches of new snow on Monday and 9.9 inches on Thursday/Thursday night, for a total of 16.3 inches measured at nearby Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

As we awaited the city plows, and dug out our sidewalks, driveways and garage aprons, the meteorologists promised an end to the snow and another plunge to below-zero temperatures for at least the next week.  (In St. Paul, the average daytime high is +31°F and the nighttime low is +15°F for late February.  Today’s predicted high is +8°F with a low of -13°F.)
Fresh snow blankets white cedars in our backyard.

Heavy snow blankets white cedars in our backyard.

Ice and snow cover black spruce and a red maple in our front yard.

Ice and snow cover a black spruce and a red maple in our front yard.

How I pine for the first crocus to poke through the soil and open its delicate cup-shaped flower to the early spring sun!  But, with at least two feet of snow, plus the snow from sidewalk shoveling heaped on top of the garden, it’s likely to be several weeks before the snow melts and sunlight warms the soil.  As soon as I spy the first patch of dirt, I’ll be out every afternoon peering at the muddy earth for the first tiny, reddish-green tip of a crocus to push through to the light and signal the reawakening of life.  What signals spring to you?

In 2013, our first crocus bloomed on April 20th in our north-facing garden).  It is

In 2013, the first crocus bloomed on April 20th in our north-facing garden. (iPhone 4)

© Beth and Nature, Garden, Life, 2013-2014.  All photographs and text are created by Beth unless specifically noted otherwise.  Excerpts and links may be used as long as full and clear credit is given to Beth and Nature, Garden, Life with specific direction to the original content.  Please do not use or duplicate material from Nature, Garden, Life without written permission from Beth.

Frost Flowers — and a Few Wild Ones

Crystalline flowers flow across the storm windows in our north-facing bathroom.  In this subzero weather, the moisture from our steamy morning showers seeps through the old, loose-fitting decorative windows and condenses as frost on the cold glass panes that cover the screens.  The patterns that take shape depend on the amount of dirt, scratches and residue on the glass, and the humidity level and temperature of the air.  These patterns are often called frost flowers, roses or ferns.

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According to Halldor Svavarsson at the Icelandic Web of Science the most commonly formed pattern of crystallization is hexagonal because it requires the least amount of energy.  If the moisture settles and freezes quickly, the roses will be small and close together.  If not, the roses may be fewer in number, larger in size and may spread out on the glass.

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Frost roses and ferns are delicate and lovely, but I prefer nature’s wildflowers.  Here are a few from last summer:

Monarda fistulosa also known as bergamot and beebalm.

Fragrant, spicy wild bergamot or bee balm (Monarda fistulosa).

Vernonia fasciculata also know as smooth ironweed and prairie ironweed.

Prairie or smooth ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata).

New England aster also known as Michaelmas Daisy (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae).

New England aster or Michaelmas Daisy (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae).

Fringed loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata) a native perennial that is unrelated to the non-native, invasive purple loosestrife.

Native fringed loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata) is unrelated to the non-native, invasive purple loosestrife.

© Beth and Nature, Garden, Life, 2013-2014.  All photographs and text are created by Beth unless specifically noted otherwise.  Excerpts and links may be used as long as full and clear credit is given to Beth and Nature, Garden, Life with specific direction to the original content.  Please do not use or duplicate material from Nature, Garden, Life without written permission from Beth.

December Thaw

I walked a mile or so around our city neighborhood at noon today.  The sun was gently warm in a powder-blue sky and a mild breeze blew from the south.  Melting snow plunked and gurgled in metal downspouts, and chunks of ice on roof shingles loosened and crashed to the ground.  Plants lost their winter snow caps.  Squirrels snoozed on tree branches in the sun.  Blue jays, black-capped chickadees and a white-breasted nuthatch chattered in the trees.  Walkers smiled, called greetings and shed hats and mittens in the warmth.

Snow melts on the still-green stems and hips of Rosa 'Henry Kelsey".

Snow melts on the still-green stems and hips of Rosa ‘Henry Kelsey’.

Six weeks ago, a high of 47 degrees (F) would have felt very chilly and worthy of complaint.   Today, it feels balmy — a glorious day to be outside.   And though the next Arctic air mass will arrive tonight with subzero temperatures and dangerous wind chills, I’ll cherish this tiny foretaste of spring while I wait for the January thaw.

Northern Christmas Greetings

In the cold darkness of the northern winter, solstice arrived and soon the days will grow noticeably longer.  May you know the beauty,

Miscanthus sinensis 'Purpurascens'

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Purpurascens’ seed heads glisten with ice, Saint Paul, Minnesota.

the quiet peace,

Red pines in the St. John's Arboretum, Collegeville, Minnesota.

Early morning among the red pines, St. John’s Arboretum, Collegeville, Minnesota.

and the joy in this season of Light.

Evening sky and Black Hiils spruce, St. Paul, Minnesota.

Evening sky and Black Hills spruce, Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Winter Sky

The winter sky is moody and ever-changing even in the city.  The rising sun glows a warm orange on trees and buildings that belies the steely cold air.

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The sky grows to a brilliant blue, then often softens to dove gray — especially in early winter when clouds quickly blanket the blue, sputter snowflakes, or spin a squall before moving out.

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Winter sunsets fire the horizon unlike any other time of year.  As the sun sinks lower, light streams through our southwest windows flooding the rooms with deep golden rays.  I love that last burst of gentle, bright warmth and, for a few moments, I work in those rooms when possible — perhaps to write, catch up on paperwork, or even fold a basket of laundry.  Soon afterward, broad strokes of rose illuminate the west, then slowly die down to pink embers.

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Many evenings, in the final glow of twilight a silvery moon brightens against a pale, fading sky.

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