That is what my mom would say, years ago, when I lived in New Jersey as a child. "Spring has sprung!" By then the last of winter's snow had melted away and crocus buds were beginning to unfurl in the lawn, as the grass came back to life. Purple, yellow, white, sometimes striped and always with a little orange bit in the middle. The bit that, I have since learned, is where the world's most expensive spice comes from: saffron.
The saffron crocus rises from the dirt of of much warmer climes than my former back yard, holding aloft long, curly stigma that are downright gigantic in comparison to those of any crocus found here in the United States. The stigma is the top part of the female reproductive organs of a plant, in case you've forgotten second grade science, designed to catch pollen from the wind or wherever else it might be. It boggles my mind to consider why these flowers might have developed such extended appendages, but maybe the hot, dry air has something to do with it.
As far as I can tell, crocuses do not grow in California, or at least not in my part of California, where both winter snow and warm winds are rare. Once, down the block in a small tree well underneath a gingko, I thought I saw a crocus. But it was really a freesia, another famous flower known more for its scent than its flavor. Here on the west coast, where the passing of seasons is indistinct and largely unnoticed, I have to make due with other botanical signals.
Like the strawberries, for instance. During the dry summer their leaves begin to shrink away, turn brown and curl under. Towards the end of September their berrying stops and they very rarely form any new flowers. The plants hunker down and shrink altogether, waiting out the relative chill of a zone 8B winter. After some good strong rain and a string of warm days (the temperature increases most rapidly from January to June around here, summer just stays the same) they bush out into leafy green bunches more than twice their previous size and begin to bloom.
The indestructible fava bean plants also show a noticeable increase in size. The only thing that will sprout in mid-winter, they have been growing since December and are just about ready to harvest. The favas' pods reach for the sky while their stalks grow heavy and fall over. Similarly, the foxgloves that reseed themselves in small colonies outside of the vegetable beds need support to stay upright. But not yet. Most of them are still babies preparing to bloom, though flowering takes each plant two years to achieve. In a few weeks some of them will be beautiful, the long wait excused. Tall spires of spotted purple and cream, they wave in the breeze like huge sticks of rock candy, which they most definitely are not. Foxgloves, or Digitalis, are poisonous. Although nice to look at, they do not belong on top of a cake or in a salad, unlike most of the other things growing out here.
Back around in the far corner of the other, more neglected vegetable bed, the brussels sprouts are busy blooming. They have outlived their time to appear on the table and are now going to seed, functioning primarily as pollinators. They will also make a nice nursery for the dreaded cabbage white butterfly, if I don't pull them out soon. Feared by food gardeners around the world yet beloved by caterpillar seeking children, the cabbage white larvae themselves are a harbinger of summer, the next season to come.
Yes, I know. There's a drought on this year. It's going to get worse. The prices of tomatoes and other California dry season delights will surely rocket in the upcoming months, if they haven't already. I should conserve water, not pour it onto my garden. But last weekend's rain seems to have pushed the plants here into glorious upheaval, a celebration of what will most probably be their last gulp of naturally falling water before next winter. It is very difficult to deny them a drink.
All season long I've been trying to save water, banking karmic points to trade in at a later date for hydrating my summer garden. I use the world's slowest washing machine, which squeezes every drop of re-use out of the meager amount of water it consumes. I use detergent that, while allegedly non-destructive to the environment, also seems to be non-destructive to dirt and grime. Nothing really gets as clean as back when I used Tide and an upright machine that could have filled a small swimming pool in three wash cycles. The same can be said for our dishes. The dishwasher is quiet, but runs slow as molasses. It uses powerful jets and reuses the same water over and over, yet still doesn't have the scrubbing power of the noisy 1980s behemoth of my childhood.
I don't wash my car. I barely wash my floors. I walk, bike, or use transit as often as possible. I try to buy only locally grown produce. I try to buy only locally baked bread. I try to buy organically certified meat that is from California. I walk to run errands. I refuse plastic bags and use the paper ones for compost, with which I fill my green bin each week. I subscribe to a CSA. I buy recycled paper products.
I make my children ride their scooters to school instead of allowing them to relax in the car. I give them reusable water bottles and pack their lunch in the same old smelly container every day. I try to buy only used toys (but that doesn't work very well). I feed them as many forms of locally grown, un-processed, un-packaged food as they are able to bear. And I bathe them as little as possible. Hopefully all that will be enough to get me off the hook this time.