Flowers & plants

Bee on purple coneflower

Every year, summer announces its arrival in ways that don’t necessarily correspond to human calendars. To some, Memorial Day marks the traditional start of summer, but for others, summer arrives with the summer solstice or the July 4th holiday. Memorial Day is in May, the summer solstice is in June, and the 4th of July is (obviously) in July, which means summer arrives either gradually or repeatedly over the course of a month or so, depending on whose calendar you follow.

Purple coneflower

For me, there are two surefire signs that the height of summer is really here: cicadas and coneflowers. Earlier this week, while J and I were walking to lunch on a humid day, I heard the year’s first cicada calling from a shady spot along a woodsy trail that wends through our neighborhood. To my ears, the first cicadas of summer sound shrill and sharp, as if recently honed. Only in August will the collective chorus of cicadas have a deeper, more rattling sound, as if their voices have both deepened and dulled with age.

Purple coneflowers

Last Friday, I took a moment to photograph the purple coneflowers blooming in a garden alongside the Hyde Playground in Newton Highlands. Purple coneflowers are one of my favorite flowers: I love their eye-popping combination of purple and orange as well as the textural contrast between their pleated petals and spiky centers. The fact that these Hyde Playground coneflowers are garden plantings rather than wild blooms doesn’t make them any less a harbinger of summer: regardless of who planted them, these coneflowers open (and are beset with neighborhood bees) only when the sun stirs them.

Purple coneflower

So you can forget about the dog days of summer; we’ve reached the days of coneflowers and cicadas. What do dogs know about summer that the flowers and bugs haven’t already told them?

Cloudy with a chance of magnolias

Between today’s classes at Framingham State, I pulled myself from my paper-piles to take a quick walk around the block, wandering into a residential neighborhood then circling back. Even during a short walk, it’s hard not to notice spring manifesting in the form of greening grass, blooming flowers, and lounging college students.

First dandelions and ground-ivy

It’s been chillier than usual this April: usually by now, I would have been besieged by students begging to have class outside, and I would have been hard pressed to say no. But so far this year, it’s been too chilly for that, and I’ve worn sandals chiefly out of principle, hating to revert back to socks, winter-weight tights, and shoes. But regardless of the temperatures, the flowers know that lengthening days mean spring, so they bloom despite the chill. After a season of snow, the sight of the earth erupting in dandelions seems nothing short of miraculous.

Something green and growing

Temperatures stayed above freezing for much of last week, so the snow pack is gradually shrinking, with patches of bare ground appearing on the edges. We saw these brave perennials starting to sprout from a sheltered spot alongside a building in Waltham yesterday…but in our yard here in Newton, the snow is still knee-deep, with an additional inch or two of fresh snow (enough for Boston to break its record for the snowiest season on record) falling last night.

Artificial flowers in snow bank

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Since it will be weeks, at least, until most of us see tulips or daffodils blooming in our still-buried gardens, some folks are taking matters in their own hands, sticking cut or even artificial flowers in the snow banks in front of their houses: a welcome spot of color. When you can’t enjoy the real thing, a reasonable facsimile will have to do.

Cut daffodils in snow bank

Don't disturb the daffodils

I confess: I’d begun to doubt the 100,000 Marathon Daffodils volunteers planted between Hopkinton and Boston as an emblem of hope and renewal after last year’s bombings would bloom in time for this year’s race. New England winters are brutal, and this past winter felt longer and colder than most. Although last weekend was warm, this week has been cold, and we don’t have any buds (much less blooms) on our backyard tulips and daffodils.

Imagine, then, my surprise and delight when I drove to the grocery store today and saw the following emblems of hope and renewal blooming along Commonwealth Avenue, just in time for Monday’s Marathon:

Marathon daffodils

Daffodils, it turns out, are stronger than I thought. For months, these bulbs lay sleeping, quietly waiting for the snow to melt and the days to lengthen. Even though today was cold enough for a jacket, hat, and gloves, apparently nothing can stop a daffodil with a deadline.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

A greenhouse is a portal to another place or time. Entering the Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses at Wellesley College last weekend, J and I traveled across space to the tropics and across time to an eventual spring. A greenhouse is a magic box that contains its own world, its own climate, and its own sense of time: a self-contained universe that remains separate and apart.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

While many folks fly to warmer climes in the cold months, J and I typically don’t travel in the winter. We visit family in the summer, when my teaching load is lighter and the weather is more predictable: the only thing worse than weathering a New England winter is being stuck in an airport en route to Elsewhere. When you don’t travel during the winter, you become practiced in the art of hunkering down, cultivating your own inner fire while enjoying quick adventures close to home during the brief daylight hours: nothing that would keep you out in the cold for long, your own warm hearth being your final destination.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

“Traveling a great deal in Concord” is how Thoreau described his own practice of home-centered excursion, his afternoon walks beginning and ending at the very writing desk where he’d record them in his journal. When you travel a great deal in your own neighborhood, your consciousness grows like a taproot, delving deep into the familiar and mundane. You become a connoisseur of the Here and Now, cultivating patience like a hidden bulb that will bear fruit only in due course, after many storms and much suffering.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

Last weekend at the Wellesley College greenhouses, J and I repeatedly crossed paths with several photographers toting long-lensed cameras, tripods, and complicated flashes. “It’s like spring in here,” one of these photographers enthused as he followed us into a room filled with potted tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths. We later saw a van for a photography club on a field trip, and I can’t think of a better destination than a glass house that contains flora from around the world. A greenhouse, after all, is the opposite of snow globe. Instead of containing a tiny scene perpetually a-swirl in white, a greenhouse traps the sun’s own heat under glass, a sun-globe that refracts and magnifies all the color and warmth of an undying summer.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

Click here for more photos from last weekend’s trip to the Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses at Wellesley College: enjoy!

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

Today J and I are planning to go to the Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses at Wellesley College, which we visited almost exactly two years ago. Two years ago, we’d had a mild and relatively snow-free winter, so March found me starved for greenery more than warmth. This year, it’s been cold and we’ve had plenty of snow, so I’m starved for any color that isn’t white or gray.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

Hothouse flowers have a bad rap for being high-maintenance: what kind of plants need a sheltered and climate-controlled environment to thrive? But after months of being pent-up in my own hot house, I’m looking forward to visiting a tropical pocket where both my glasses and my camera lens will fog with warmth and humidity. Thank goodness, in other words, for hothouse flowers. I don’t know how we’d get through another interminable New England winter without them.


I’m still participating in a 365-day photo challenge, where I’ve committed to taking (and posting to Flickr) at least one photo every day this year. As I mentioned when I first announced this project, the challenge for me isn’t to take a total of 365 photos in single year; instead, the challenge is to take (and share) at least one photo a day.

Front yard ferns

In a typical year, I take photos in spurts: on a day when J and I watch a parade or go to a Red Sox game or take a walk at a cemetery, I can easily take dozens of photos. But on more mundane days when I’m running errands, doing household chores, or grading papers, finding something photogenic to share can be a challenge. As is true with any sort of challenge, the days when it’s hardest to keep your commitment are the days when that commitment bears the most useful fruit.

Green on green

Now that I’m almost 150 days into the year, I’ve settled into a photographic routine for days when I’m not planning to go anywhere exciting. Around lunchtime, after I’ve unloading the dishwasher, I take my camera for a short walk around the yard. The sole purpose of this walk is to stalk today’s photo, as if I were a chef checking her garden to find ingredients for tonight’s dinner.

Fuzzy buds - May 22 / Day 142

On this short yard-walk, I check to see what is blooming or looming: are the peony buds still tightly closed? Is the spiderwort past its prime? Are there any interesting birds splashing in the birdbath, or any of several baby cottontails willing to be photographed?

Hydrangea leaf

As silly as it sounds, simply taking a more-or-less daily stroll around my own yard with a camera has made me much more aware of what’s going on there. Yesterday, for instance, the irises bloomed…


…but the mountain laurels didn’t. How could I have been certain of these two realities unless I myself went outside to see?

Mountain laurel buds

One thing that has surprised me this year is how much I miss even when I’m trying to be observant. One day last week, for instance, I shot a picture of some curiously reddened leaves on the shrub that fringes our front sidewalk, but only after I looked at the photo on my laptop did I realized the stem of those leaves was crawling with tiny green insects.

Crawling - May 23 / Day 143

Likewise, while focused on yesterday’s tightly budded mountain laurels, I unwittingly shot a picture of a lacy-winged insect beneath one of them.

Insect on mountain laurel bud

Having almost-missed this almost-transparent insect, I now wonder how many silent creatures I pass or tread upon without noticing. How dare I venture into the world at large when I am so ignorant about the goings-on in my own backyard?

Robin's egg

The main reason to do a 365-day photo challenge is to force yourself to pay attention, and simply paying attention always bears interesting fruit. As soon start paying attention, one of the first things you notice is how oblivious you normally are. How many years have gone by when I didn’t notice the exact day when the irises bloomed or the almost-invisible insects in my midst?

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