Six Signs of Spring: Weeping Willows

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Shorts, swollen streams and weeping willows. I’m listing Six Signs of Spring because I cannot resist a good alliteration. Because with a forecast high in the 30s for tomorrow, it’s hard to quite believe that spring is really here. And because I am a little bit obsessed with capturing the exact moment when spring arrives.

spring daffodil

How did these daffodils know when to bloom?

It is because of this last obsession that I sometimes wish I were a biologist or a botanist, with insight into the secret lives of plants and animals. Starting at the winter solstice, we know on an intellectual level that the days are getting longer, and so spring is getting closer. But do we feel it the way the plants do? The way the birds do? All around us, living things turn an invisible corner sometime in December, when we are just putting away the Christmas decorations. Think of what must have been happening beneath the ground for months before you spotted the first daffodil shoot springing up. How long did it take that green leaf to break the surface? What subtle signs was the bulb attuned to that told it, “Now!”

For years when I was growing up, my family would head to Sanibel Island around the same time every year. When we left for Florida, the trees were bare. When we returned just a week later, they were covered in a fuzzy green. Like a magic trick, spring had come.  But I had missed it. Perhaps this is the origin of my unhealthy obsession with spring and trees.

Living in Madison, almost every day I travel the same drive to campus, passing the same hillsides and the same trees. There is something about the rhythm of this life that lends itself to a watchful observance of the seasons. Based on the evidence I have gathered so far, I can tell you to keep an eye on the weeping willows.

On one day, you’ll drive by the weeping willows in someone’s yard and they will be just as barren as the other trees. Then the next day, they’ll be suddenly draped with long, thin, yellow streamers. Not quite leaves, yet, but the signal of things to come, and much more visible than the action happening on the less droopy trees.

At about the same time, the rest of the trees begin to look reddish at the tips of their branches as you drive by. If you get up close, you can see the buds forming and preparing to pop open. But from a distance, the change is so small you might believe it’s not there at all. You might believe you are imagining things. You might very well be. But if you’re someone like me, hoping to catch the exact moment when springs arrives, you might conclude that the trees know much more about the changing of the seasons than we do.

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