A New Year is Born

Rev. Connell considers the signs of early spring in the natural world in and around Victoria including the song of the skylarks and the opening of some of the first flowers.

From the Victoria Daily Colonist, March 13, 1938.

If we were to arrange our year according to the phenomena of Nature, it seems certain we should date the New Year from the first day of spring; but life is too illusive for our time divisions, and annually we should be faced with the question: When does spring begin? We generally know when spring has arrived, but who can foretell the day of its arrival? The opening of the buds, the first bees among the heath flowers, the returning birds, the shrilling of the frogs in the ponds, the snowdrop and crocus and primrose of the garden, the osoberry flowers in the woods: why, some of these go back to December and mid-winter, and yet the voice and promise of spring is in them.

Osoberry or June Plum (Oemleria cerasiformis) flowering in Uplands Park, Oak Bay, on March 1st, 2021. Photo by Ben Clinton-Baker.

The other day I walked out to see the larks. Along Richmond Road south of Lansdowne I watched five soaring one after another, and a sixth was up as I turned towards the Uplands. I could hear, too, the voices of others below, and saw several pairs flying low. Another took its upward course from the slopes east of the old Dean place [near Richmond and Lansdowne Roads] and I could hear its comrades in the fields though they were out of sight. Then I went to the Uplands farm where, opposite the golf links and close to the farm gate, I stood and listened to invisible birds. Suddenly a pair got up just within the fence not 10 feet from where I was standing and, flying off, dropped to the ground about 50 feet away. Later on in the afternoon I stood at the point where Beach Drive leaves Oak Bay’s northern corner. There, within 50 feet of the constant coming and going of motorcars and of pedestrians, a lark rose singing and spiralled into the afternoon sky. And it was in December I saw and heard their nuptial flights in the Richmond Road fields.

The open fields around Victoria and Oak Bay were an ideal habitat for the introduced skylarks so beloved by Connell and many immigrants like him. Richmond Road looking south with the roof of the Deans family farmhouse at the corner of Lansdowne Road just visible among the trees to the left. Richard Maynard photo, c1890, BCA Image.

Stirring of Life

These mysterious stirrings of life in birds, both migratory and resident, corresponds to the first signs of flower and leaf as seen in the more precocious plants. Most of these are dwellers in the garden, importations from other lands and other climes. But given a favourable situation, some of our natives come into bloom very early in so mild a winter as this past one has been. Thus along the rocky shore of Otter Point the kinnikinick was in bloom two days after Christmas Day in 1929. So far as my records go, we can say of the wildflowers that spring gets well underway in March, though as a rule it’s progress is slow, and we who have recollections of the prairies miss the sudden burst of life that follows the end of snow and frost. I remember once passing through the Kinistineau country of Saskatchewan when the snow, freshly melted from the trail, still lay in great drifts in sheltered corners, and the Birch Hills were grey with the leafless thickets, but when I returned a week later they were wreathed in the snowy white of wild cherry blossoms, filling the air with delicious scent. In 1897 I went to Edmonton by train. The spring was late, and north of Red Deer dead grass of the newly uncovered country was being swept by raging fires. Four days later I drove south by way of the Battle River, crossing east of Hobbema, and the hillsides were literally smothered in the mauve bloom of the crocus-like pasque flowers. The Westerner’s story of how he drove from Morley to Calgary before a chinook wind with the front bobs of his sleigh on the snow and behind ones on the bare ground might be taken as symbolic of spring from the Rockies to Winnipeg. There, with more precision than in our a milder and more easy-going climate, the words of the old Hebrew love song are applicable:

Lo the winter is past
The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of the singing of birds is come,
And the voice of the turtle-dove is heard in our land.

Green in the Thickets

Now that the thickets are becoming green with the clusters of osoberry and snowberry leaves, we begin to look out for the first wild flowers. The white ones of the osoberry are now out and the staminate catkins the willows are heavy with ripened anthers. On the margin of the Uplands they form masses of silvery yellow. Near the Oak Bay links the gorse is in full blossom, less showy than the broom, but in my opinion a much more beautiful sight, with the truly golden trusses of flowers set against the dark prickly foliage. And then the perfume, when the warm sun quickens it, is like nothing else we have. Mrs. Browning enshrines a story of Linnaeus, the great botanist, in her lines:

Mountain gorse, since Linnaeus knelt beside you on the sod,
For your beauty thanking God-
For your teaching you should see us
Bowing in prostration new,
Whence arisen- if one or two

Drops be on our cheeks, O world,
They are not tears but dew!

A gorse covered hillside in New Zealand where, despite remaining a major problem, interesting and innovative management practices with it and the similarly highly invasive scotch broom are being developed.

The gorse, or furze, or whin (it has all three popular names in the British Isles) is, of course, an immigrant and fortunately without the pertinacious powers of dissemination possessed by the broom, it’s near relative. Curiously enough, the very mildness of our climate is its undoing, for the severe cold north winds that in some winters break in on our precocious vegetation kill it in exposed places. It is a more constant bloomer in England than here, for there is a proverb that says: “when gorse is out of flower, kissing is out of season.”

When does spring begin? In Britain they defy the calendar and make February, March and April the spring months. On this continent it’s March, April and May. Here at the south end of Vancouver Island we are inclined to be a law unto ourselves, and yet the British order often suits us best. For certainly our winter, such as it is, begins with November rather than December. But if spring begins in February, it gets underway in March, with its culminating burst of course in April. The first erythroniums, or fawnlilies, are usually reported in March, the record apparently being held by a little island off Sidney. But the first ones are merely the pioneers, the scattered van. The main body is yet to come, and weeks after that has arrived it is possible to come across individuals in some rocky hollow of the Sooke Hills, the straggling rear of the army. This is true of all our wildflowers, though our attention is not equally attracted to their ways. There is the flow beginning in the warmer out of the way corners and gradually increasing in magnitude till the great areas that are favoured by a species are distinctly covered by its profusion: then the ebb sets in and the species is at last sparsely represented only in the more lately warmed spots of the high hills.

Fawn lily [Erythronium oregonum]

Earliest of Flowers

One of the earliest of flowers to bloom after a normal winter is the vernal whitlow grass, a tiny member of the mustard family. It is not a native, its ancestry being European and Asiatic, but it appears cheerfully each year. On February 29, 1924, February 26, 1925, and on March 1, 1927, it was not only in flower but had already developed its seed pods abundantly. Its course of life lasts only a few weeks. Generally it is only an inch or two in height, occasionally a little taller. Its flowering stems rise from rosettes of finally haired leaves that widen towards the tip and then contract gradually to a point. The small flowers are white, four-petalled, each petal deeply cleft. Its popular name is derived from his former reputation as a cure for that distressing inflammation of the first finger joint known as a “whitlow”. Scientifically it is called Draba verna.

Whitlow grass (Draba verna). Wiki image.

The Pennsylvanian cardamine, or bitter-cress, is also a very early bloomer, and three weeks ago I found a specimen with flowers and seed vessels. It also belongs to the mustard family and has white flowers. The small-seeded bitter-cress is another species commonly flowering in March, and like the former an annual.

On March 3, 1926, and on March 2, 1927, the satin flower, or grass widow, was showing it’s purple bells, on the first date on Gonzales Hill and on the second on Mount Douglas. Three weeks later it was abundant at both places, as well as at William Head. The following year, 1928, it was plentiful at both Beechy and William Heads. This plant used to be placed among the sisyrinchiums with the blue-eyed grass is which are June flowers, but it has lately been restored to the position given it 100 years ago by the botanist Rafinesque, a French-American born in Greece. This makes it a solitary species of its genus, and it is classed as Olsynium douglasii in Abrams “Illustrated Flora of the Pacific States”, and thus the discovery of it by David Douglas 112 years ago “near the Great Falls of the Columbia” is commemorated.

Satin flower/Douglas grasswidow (Olsynium douglasii

Some Early Blooms

The Camas was in bloom in 1926 as early as March 8. This was the earlier and commoner species known as Camassia quamash. The usually later and somewhat larger species, Camassia leichtlinii, distinguished from the former by the manner in which the withered flower segments twist themselves about the ripening seed-pod, was in bloom at Oak Bay on May 5 of that year. The flowering plants of the common species were evidently merely precocious specimens, for both kinds were flowering together on this last date. Our beautiful western trillium is an early bloomer. I have one in the garden well up as I write (March 1). It will, with sunny weather, be in full bloom by the end of the week. But that it is another example of precocity is shown by the fact that not one of a dozen or more companions is above ground. Plants have their idiosyncrasies like ourselves; some are up and doing well their neighbours are still asleep, while on the other hand there are those that bring up the rear lingeringly.

Petasites speciosa [Petasites frigidus var. palmatus?], the handsome butter-bur, is a neglected plant that deserves more attention. It’s flat topped clusters of purpleish white composite flowers, which appear before the leaves, are very conspicuous on wet banks and mudslides, where it seems to spring up as by magic. I found it blossoming on March 6, 1926, at Cordova Bay, with hundreds of small flies among its scented florettes. March is also the month in such years as this for the charming little blue Collinsia grandiflora, blue-eyed-Mary, to brighten the south slopes of Mount Douglas. I hope that the proposed roadway to the top of the hill will not pass through these beautiful natural hillside gardens, were several very interesting and even rare plants grow. Our so-called American cowslip, or shooting star or peacock (the two latter our local popular names), come out in favourable years in March, and has always hailed with delight by the children. It is one of the plants that does not suffer from having its flowers pulled: there is always a supply of oncoming buds as in the common primrose, to which it is related. The common species is Dodecatheon latifolium [Primula hendersonii]. There is another and more beautiful one, Dodecatheon pauciflorum [Primula clevelandii?], in which the stamens are united in a yellow tube and the base of the petals is marked by a red scalloped line on a bright yellow background. The seed capsule of the D. latifolium [Primula hendersonii] is covered with minute glandular hairs and the calyx lobes rise scarcely halfway. In D. pauciflorum the capsule is smooth and the calyx lobes rise more than half way. It is interesting looking out for the two species, as their distinction is easily overlooked without examination.

Palmate coltsfoot [Petasites frigidus var. palmatus] (top left), Blue-eyed mary [Collinsia grandiflora] (bottom left), Shooting star [Primula hendersonii] (right)

Among Lowland Flowers

A simple species of saxifrage is among our early lowland flowers. It is known as Saxifrage integrifolia, and as it has no popular name to my knowledge, it may be rendered the “entire-leaved saxifrage.” This means that the leaves are without teeth along their edges, but as a matter of fact they are more often minutely toothed than not. This is one of the difficulties connected with botanical names which are sometimes based on abnormal specimens. A better popular name would be “glandular saxifrage”, because of the glandular hairs of the thick flower bearing stem. In 1926 it was flowering in the middle of March. The pretty mauvish white flower the children call “milkmaids” is another of our early spring flowers to be looked for. It is by no means as common as it used to be, its diminution being not the result of picking but of the steady advance of population into the countryside. Its favourite haunt is in the old open woods or along the grassy sides of roads running through them, where its refreshingly coloured and sweet-scented flowers greet the pedestrian cheerily. It is a member of the mustard family. My notes show it in bloom at Cordova Bay on March 3, 1926, and a week later in abundance at Albert Head. In 1924 it was in flower on March 23 at Oak Bay, and in 1927 on March 19 and the 1928 on March 31 at William Head. The botanical name is Dentaria tenella [Cardamine nuttallii?], the delicate toothwort, so called because of its tooth-like roots, which gave it a reputation as a toothache cure.

Slender toothwort (Cardamine nuttallii)

The bearberry, or Kinickinnic, I have already referred to as a precocious blossomer, but of course the winter flowers are few. But on March 28, 1928 this hardy little evergreen shrub was covered with bloom at East Sooke along the rocky shore towards Beechy Head. It was very interesting to notice under such favourable conditions the variations in the colour of the flowers, ranging from white with crimson edging along the mouth of the bell to a clear rosy pink. There, too, on the sameday the supposed hybrid species, Arctostaphylos media, was in flower. This, instead of forming a mat as A. uva-ursi does, grows upright. The woolly manzanita, another species of upright habit forming a tall shrub six or 7 feet high or even more, is an early bloomer, and its flowers will probably be seen this march on the hilltops and rocky slopes it favors.

The Hills Near Home

Usually the hills are much later than the lowlands and coast because of the lower temperatures they have in winter. But in the crevices of the rocks, and sometimes creeping a little way down the rock-waste slopes, you will find on some of our higher hills a little mountain saxifrage that is very early in flowering. It even comes down to the seacoast along the south side of the East Sooke peninsula. In 1927 it’s red-anthered white flowers were out on February 26 on hills in the Highland district. The same year I found it in bloom on March 5 in the Cattle Hills, and on March 12 on Mill Hill. It is a pretty plant with oval leaves of dark smooth green, edged with rounded teeth, and with their undersides a purpleish red. The botanist calls it Saxifrage rufidula, which may be rendered “ruddy saxifrage”.

Rusty-haired saxifrage (Saxifraga rufidula)

Yes, even in February the signs of spring are at hand, though in some years the flowers may be delayed. The days are rapidly lengthening and on clear nights, if you know your constellations at all, you can see that the magnificent winter ones are nightly slipping further west. We may not always perceive it clearly, but there is magic in the air. The birds feel it and are stirred to new beauty as well as new activities. The plants feel it and burst their buds. The bulbs and seeds in the dark earth feel it, and in increasing numbers send aloft their green shafts to sun and air. The little black wolf spiders in the garden feel it and are busy all day long rushing hither and thither among the rocks and plants. It is the great annual miracle which we who live in northern climes enjoy as no others. Alfred Austin well expresses this in his “Defence of English Spring”. After recalling the pleasures of spring in Italy and Greece, he says:

But none of these, nor all, can match,
at least for him who loves to watch
the wildflowers come, hear wild birds sing,
the rapture of an English spring.
With us it lighters more than where
It comes, it goes, half unaware.
Makes winter short, makes summer long;
In autumn half renews its song;

Nor even then doth hence depart,
But hibernates within my heart.

Published by Ben C. Baker

The best stories, I think, are those that connect us to place, and as an historian this is the focus of my interest and work here in Victoria, BC, Canada.

One thought on “A New Year is Born

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