Spring! It announces itself in so many different ways. Elements such as earlier sunrises and later sunsets are universal and scientific; they are just the factual representation that our trip around the sun continues and our polar location is once again gaining favorable positioning with regards to our exposure to the sun’s radiation. Other, more unpredictable variables, like the warming weather patterns that lead to more rain and less snow, can lull us into a false sense of “springtime” only to blindside us with one final push of winter that crushes our spirits so that we can never trust again. Weather is a bad indicator: it is far too subjective to be a true gauge of seasonal transition. My favorite barometer of springiness is nature. When the flowers start to bloom and the trees start to bud out, you know it is really and truly Spring.
That is, unless you live in Pennsylvania.
Let me explain. We have a lovely non-native plant that is gradually spreading its lies across our beautiful state. It huddles along pathways in our mossy deciduous forests, poking its treacherous green sprouts through the decomposing leaf litter at the earliest signs that winter is waning. With February barely half spent, it begins to open its deceitful yellow petals, announcing a false Spring to all who are foolish enough to believe its untruths. Eranthis hyemalis or “winter aconite” is a member of the buttercup family of flowers, but, unlike its honest, straight-dealing, spring-blooming cousins, it insists on blooming in the middle of winter.
Growing up in Idaho, I didn’t have to deal with this crap. We have honest flowers out west. Flowers like tulips and daffodils. You never see an allium or field violet before it is sure winter is done. You can be damn sure if you are hiking through a meadow full of phlox that the snows are behind you. This bastard offshoot of an honest family, winter aconite has no such regard for the decorum of its fellow flowers. This horticultural abomination gives us the proverbial finger by defying the frost and the ice with its perfect springtime appearance in what is clearly a month that belongs to old man winter.
Walking my favorite trails, I am jarred by its appearance. Where did it come from? Why is it here? It is not a native plant, having been brought over by wistful Mediterranean immigrants (no doubt longing for the more temperate climate of home). It is notoriously hard to get started (based on my perusal of numerous gardening blogs), giving even the greenest of thumbs fits, but here it is, spreading like the weed it is, invading the forest floor, prematurely replacing the browns of winter with the green of spring. It can’t be the wind spreading the seeds; it favors dense groves of trees where the wind cannot easily reach it. The fact that it grows no more than six inches high protects it even further from the breezes that might carry its seeds, allowing it to drop its seeds in the soil right next to it, so that it appears in clumps along the trails. You can’t even blame animals for its spread, as it is notoriously poisonous; any animal that tried to eat it would become violently ill.
So, if you are out walking in February in Pennsylvania, trust the calendar and the angle of the sun. Don’t trust the deceitful bright sunny flowers of Eranthis hyemalis and the 60-degree weather. It is still winter, so keep your hat and coat handy; you are still going to need them.
by: Tim Kiester with extensive grammatical edits provided by Laura Nelson (check out her blog; she is hilarious).