Saturday, February 9, 2013

Spring's slow march begins

It sounds a bit off-key, if not altogether callous, to bring up this subject after all the hurricanes, wild temperature fluctuations and now a winter storm that have hit the northern United States recently. But I must report the news: About a week, maybe ten days, ago spring definitely began to stir around the ranch, following a brief and very mild winter that didn't bring any serious freezes.

In more northerly climates spring colors arrive suddenly, almost shockingly. Crocuses burrow their way through the melting snow, and two or three weeks after that the rest of grass and most of the landscape turns green as if sprayed with some magic dye. There is some obvious logic to this yearly miracle, related to the melting snow and April showers soaking up the ground which combined with warmer temperatures, wake up the vegetation.

In San Miguel, spring, such as it is, arrives much earlier--at the end of January--and from there it's a painfully slow, listless sequence of nature, lasting months until it begins to rain toward July and trees and bushes finally turn green for good, or at least for three or four months. The farmers may plow the fields and sow their seeds but unless they have artificial rain jigs to fool nature, they'll just have to wait for the rainy season. There's no rushing spring here.

Rain or no, however, it is getting warmer at the ranch, with midday temperatures creeping up into the 80s and back down to the 60s at night. That upward trend must be what kicks some plants awake, all of which, so far, have bright yellow flowers.

Unidentified Flying Insect on a jarrilla bush. 
There's the wild jarrilla, really a weedy bush that grows along the roads and covers itself with yellow, smelly flowers. People may find it stinky but to the bees, wasps, butterflies and other flitting pollen-suckers, jarrilla's flowers are a cross between manna and Chanel No. 5.

Also there's the huizache, covered with marble-size puffs of tiny yellow flowers that bees crave. According to Stew, huizache-derived honey is the sweetest and most coveted, though neither one of us can figure out how to direct the bees to the huizaches--psst, over there, that's the good stuff!--and away from jarrillas and other lesser blooms.

Tell it to the bees: Huizache blooms about to open up. 
The one exception to the yellow-flower rule are our three peach trees which are covered with their delicate pink blossoms and already displaying about a dozen small, fuzzy fruits. The apricot tree hasn't flowered and neither has the apple or the two cherries. Although the cherries bloom timidly every year, and then leaf out, I'm not waiting on them to make any preserves.

Peachy times coming.
Another sign of spring are the Meyer lemon and navel orange trees, which are both covered with fruit. As opposed to the "lemons" at the local markets, which are green and small, these are yellow and damn near the size of tennis balls and very juicy.

The fruiting of the the peach, lemon and orange trees shouldn't be a mystery. We've been watering them weekly since it stopped raining in November. To conserve water we let the shower water run into a bucket until it gets hot and then we dump it on the orange and lemon trees in our front yard. That extra watering has yielded juicier fruit with thinner peels.

One of Stew's bees at work on a peach blossom. 
But who or what waters or otherwise jolts the jarrillas, huizaches and other wild bushes that are now covered with blooms? The most recent rains we've had were shortly after New Year's Day, and that was only a measly half-inch. The spring awakening must be solely a function of warmer temperatures, and of the phenomenally deep roots of desert plants, steadily drilling downwards searching for humidity.

I've heard the roots of a mesquite or huizache can reach down ten or fifteen feet where dampness is available even during a serious drought. Even then, these survivors might drop some or all of their tiny leaves in a dire emergency to try and hold on to whatever humidity they have in their systems.

Next up in our sauntering spring sequence are the cacti, plump and green year round and now gradually covering themselves with small thorny lumps that will become flowers, maybe in another month or six weeks.  The hills will be a bit greener too but nothing like the spectacular, sis-boom-bah springs that we were used to around Chicago, and which just as quickly turned into hot summers.

Nah, our spring may get a bit more summery but it will still crawl along for maybe another six months, when rain will completely drive final traces of brownness out of our landscape and the wildflowers, tens of thousands of them, will begin their show. It's slow in arriving but worth the wait.

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