Spring has been very slow to show itself in D.C. this year. After such a mild and snowless winter, March has brought us snow, and cold, and more cold, and then surprisingly this morning, more snow. These photos were taken on one of the warmest days we’ve had this month, one of the only days we could walk around without jackets on. We ice skated, climbed boulders, and shared ice cream. And we found these crocuses gloriously doing the same thing we were doing–soaking up the sun.
Growing up in the 70s, in the fall, the Woodley Park neighborhood of Washington, D.C., was a magical place to be a child. Bumpy spherical fruits, roughly the size of a softball, would fall out of the trees where they had hidden, unnoticed, all summer, and land on grass, roads, sidewalks. With their nubby skin and faintly citrus scent, these osage oranges were fascinating things to hold, rub, sniff. Their heft made them satisfying to throw, too. All of us kids threw them into the street to be smashed by cars, where they would turn into large, pale green circles of guts and gore that would rot with an increasingly fruity stench.
And then, on another scale, there were the berries that appeared on the vines that wrapped around bushes and across any open space along the edges of the meadows of Rock Creek Park and other woodland areas. Clusters of pink, blue, lavender, magenta, and purple berries appeared on these leafy vines, many different colored berries even in the same cluster. It was as if the Porcelain Vine invented princess colors long before the Disney princess phenomenon; the colors of these berries could not be more reflective of princesses and magical kingdoms. We picked these magical kingdom princess berries to create potions, swirl around in our palms, count, feed dolls and toss to the birds.
And then, of course, there was the created magic of jack o lanterns on front porches on Halloween, candles flickering inside toothy grins. We never made it much further than down one long block, but there were the rumors of razor blades in apples, the darkened house we weren’t allowed to go to, the house we were allowed to go up to, but at which nobody ever answered the door. Those precious bags of candy that were stashed in dresser drawers and carefully winnowed down until they eventually disappeared. “The dog must have eaten the rest,” we always told each other. I fully believed this story; not until I had kids of my own did I learn that my mother had eventually thrown the bags of aging candy away.
We live in D.C. now, but in a different neighborhood, where I haven’t seen any Osage Orange trees. And while I jog by the Porcelain Vines in Rock Creek Park, their berries as startling a part of the fall as ever, my kids haven’t been turned loose down there to find them. But I walked into our back yard the other day after the kids had been busy with their friends there for hours and found seed pods and grasses and flowers plucked from neighboring back yards drying on our patio table. I saw the kids’ horror at the news that Halloween might be ruined by a coming storm. Our neighborhood is still a magical place to be a child. Isn’t yours?
While walking around D.C. these days, there are treasures to be found underfoot. For example, the perfection of the first orange/red maple leaves to to fall from the trees. I gave the first one I found while walking the dogs one morning last week to my three-year-old son. He put it in his backpack and, at the end of the day, he gave it to his teacher. She blushed with surprise and delight. Then, the next morning, on the same block, I found another. This small maple tree, bestowing its bounty slowly, giving us time to appreciate the transformation.
Later, along Rock Creek, I saw the small indentation in the rock that had come to hold water, which in turn had caught three falling leaves. Such gifts are everywhere these days.
The sunflower is what brought me to gardening. The first spring we owned our house, I threw a few sunflower seeds in the ground, separated the tiny plants as they grew, and, when a couple of months later my first sunflower burst forth, I was hooked. Until I had three kids. Since my son was born three and a half years ago, I’ve hardly given the garden more than a few minutes here or there. But this spring, my children planted sunflower seeds with their father and right at the end of summer, this glorious sunflower unfurled.
This sunflower, though, seems to be offering a different message from the others I adored, back when I had a garden full of sunflowers and the illusion of unlimited time. My kids and I came into the garden one day and it towered above us, perfect in its symmetry, its bright yellow petals and green leaves against a blue sky. “I should take a picture,” I thought, but the kids needed something, the dogs needed something, dinner needed to be cooked, dishes cleaned, backpacks readied, and the next time I noticed the sunflower, the weight of its huge head had become too much for its stem, and the flower hung straight down like a shower head. I took this picture of it then, with the bee happily heading for its center, digging for pollen. A few days later, and its perfect circle of a center had become concave. Goldfinches flew by to snack on it, briefly decorating the rough stem with their bright yellow bodies. As it droops more I know that soon the squirrels will take over, and eventually, the flower will be chewed off, and land in the dirt, and almost all of its seeds will be scavenged, except for a few, maybe, that will become hidden in the dirt and might even grow into a new sunflower next year. The stalks will remain standing, first rough and green, then dry and brittle, until eventually one of us pulls them out from their surprisingly small rootbeds for such a tall flower, and tosses them aside.
They are beautiful, the sunflowers, impossibly, gloriously beautiful. But more than that, more obviously than the other flowers in the garden, they demonstrate their usefulness through the many beings they nourish as their glory fades.
I love this tangle of morning glory and overgrown grass that was flourishing on a parking strip in Petworth I passed recently. It was so accidental and joyful, so irrepressible, and it spoke to a richness in the hot, humid days of late summer in Washington, D.C. Sometimes, in D.C., the end of summer seems like something to get through. The relentless humidity, and the relentless chill of the office buildings downtown. The mosquitos have had all summer to grow and multiply and figure out where to gather, and descend, and bite. We haven’t been eating outside much; every time I go jogging these days I spend most of the jog fantasizing about how it is bound to get cooler and drier one of these days, it will, surely it will. But these flowers were a call to linger in the end of summer torpor, to party, to bloom.
Generally, I’m not a huge fan of hydrangeas. With their pom poms of flowers, they remind me too much of cotton candy and other pastel concoctions. But I like the way this hydrangea bush owns its corner, highlighting the richness of the old red brick and metal bannister with contrasting paleness. I like the way the bush overflows its corner and cascades along the stairs, sending almost a waterfull of puff balls against the straight lines of the row house, the ephemeral overtaking the solid, the lavish balls of flowers bursting forth from a corner of what is a very small front yard of a modest row house, as if to say, you can never have too much hydrangea.
Also, in this photo, I love the way the glass storm door reflects the turret of the row house across the street. The details up high on these early 20th century small houses still celebrate their existence almost one hundred years after they were built, still demand that passersby notice the sky. And to see it here reflected in the door of the house across the street–a house that happens to have a particularly effervescent hydrangea–underscores the urban interplay of what is there in front of you with everything else that has been built or exists all around.
A lot of D.C. rowhouses have a rosebush blooming in the front yard, like this one I passed on my way to work last week. Some of the rose bushes are carefully planted in fully landscaped gardens; others, like this one, exist as the yard’s sole decoration. If my experience is any guide, rosebushes in D.C., when planted in a place that gets enough sun, take some work the first few years–pruning, watering, smushing of aphids, plucking of diseased leaves–but then, at least in the spring before the pests wreak their havoc, they’ll thrive pretty much on their own. Whether perfectly pruned, or overgrown and straggly, they offer the sumptuous beauty of their flowers to anyone who passes by. It’s a gift, a thoughtless generosity, by multitudes of people who keep most of their treasures behind locked doors.
The Irises have come out all over D.C. They are such an extravagant flower, like butterflies, their petals seeming to defy gravity as they unfurl, folding into each other in irregular carresses, shaped and re-shaped with every bump and breeze. When we first bought our house in 2000, the first time I had a yard of my own, I thought I might plant a vegetable garden. But I casually threw some sunflower seeds into the dirt, and the moment I saw my first blooming sunflower, I was hooked. I went through a few years of flower gardening frenzy, including some when I bought too many bulbs and planted them haphazardly everywhere there was free dirt. Then I had kids and more kids, and very little time to garden. But some of the bulbs still come up. This iris bloomed in a hazardous spot, right off our main path down the garden where strollers and bikes are daily wheeled up and down and children run with bats and sticks and backpacks hanging from their hands–and right by the rarely latched door that connects our yard to our neighbor’s, and that is opened and closed by kids’ hands and dogs’ noses with a multitude of reasons to hurry and few to be careful as they come and go. But so far, the iris stands, lovely in the sun and heedless of our chaos.
I’m sure Washington, D.C., is continuing to blossom like crazy this week, but I’m with my family in Kennewick, Washington, visiting my father in law. It’s earlier in the spring up here and the trees are just blossoming. Alongside the roads, in the hollows and valleys of the dry hills, stand weeping willows, their light yellow-green tendrils cascading around them like hair, like a gown, half tree, half maiden, presenting themselves in the breeze.