Has time grown sleepy at his post And let the exiled summer back?
Or is it her regretful ghost Or witchcraft of the almanac?
- E. R. Sill.
The still, sunny fall days are the serene old age of summer. In them they year seems to go back, as old people sometimes do, to the memories and ways of her early youth, and October and November sometimes behave like April, to the utter confusion and ultimate destruction of the flowers. For the flowers, not having "evoluted" to the use of almanacs, must regulate their affairs by guesswork, and when the sun shines brightly above them, and the earth feels warm and moist about their roots, they are grievously deceived, and mistake the Indian summer for the spring.
So it is by no means uncommon to find spring blossoms in late autumn, and this is especially apt to be the case when the early fall has been rainy.
A week or two of mild and showery weather will sometimes coax a number of dandelions into bloom. The little blunderers will probably be overlooked, for we are apt to observe the things we expect to find and to miss those we are not looking for, and we certainly are not looking for October dandelions. There they are, however, gladdening the roadsides in many places. Let us hope that they will have time to set their seed and float it away to pastures new on gauzy parachutes before winter comes swooping down out of the North.
Fig. 100. - Witch-hazel (Hamamelis Virginica). (From Report of Botanist in Annual Report of Secretary of Agriculture, 1885).
Violets, too, blossom sparingly in late fall sunshine. In golden Indian-summer weather one may gather them as late as Thanksgiving. Wild strawberries sometimes bloom quite luxuriantly in September or October. Here and there a willow pussy thrusts its furry foolish head above the bud-scales, which should have screened it till the spring, and in sheltered garden spots the early-flowering shrubs, especially the pyrus japonica and bridal-wreath, put forth a few fall-blossoms.
Some hardy weeds are so eager to seize upon every opportunity afforded by the chances and changes of our climate, that a few days of mildness and sunshine, in the heart of winter, will coax them into bloom.
There is no month in the year in which one may not see the flowers of chickweed, sow-thistle, and shepherd's-purse, the little pink-purple blossoms of the dead-nettle, and the dandelion's disks of gold. But the superstitious soul had better leave them to the mercies of Jack Frost, for it is highly unlucky, according to an old saying, to pluck flowers out of season.
Even the sight of these untimely blossoms is distressing to some superstitious souls. In the eastern townships of Canada, where Old World sentiments and sayings linger, many persons own to a decidedly uncomfortable feeling if an apple-tree blossoms in the fall. A like superstition prevails in New England, and probably the idea in both cases is traceable to Old England, where it has been embodied in the Northamptonshire jingle:
"A bloom upon the apple-tree when apples are ripe, Is a sure termination to somebody's life".
But people have not always thus looked askance at belated blossoms. The "holy-thorns" of England won a great reputation for beneficent potency by putting on their adornment when all the woods were bare. Once upon a time the common folk firmly believed in the magical and medical virtues of these trees, and legends were told to account for their winter blossoming. The wealthy gave large sums for cuttings from them, to plant in their own gardens. The patriarch among these beloved trees was the famous Glastonbury whitethorn, which sprouted, so runs the story, from a staff planted by Joseph of Arimathea. Its habit of late-fall flowering gained for it a widespread and holy reputation, which became its own undoing. A Puritan soldier, moved by that strange spirit which prompted the destruction of things because other people thought them beautiful or held them in reverence, cut it down as an "emblem of popery." It was supposed to flower every Christmas day.
Leaves, like flowers, are sometimes "born out of due time" under shining autumn skies. Among the last of the old foliage, when the trees are nearly stripped, sharp eyes may see, here and there, a cluster of two or three leaves unfolding in the tender green of spring. Horse-chestnut buds are particularly apt to open thus unseasonably, and elm buds are likewise prone to err.
The October dandelions and November violets make their ill-timed display on a stock of savings which was intended for their use next spring. Last spring, after the flowers faded and the precious seed was set, the plants turned their energies toward providing for the wants of the future. The leaves drank in the summer sunshine, the roots soaked up what summer rain the weather-gods vouchsafed them, and the food thus gathered was stored away in the root for future use. The bridal-wreath and pyrus japonica shrubs were equally forehanded. In spring they were obliged to support a showy and expensive family of flowers, which needed for their maintenance all that the parent bushes could scrape together. When flowering time was over, however, the bushes began to gather a store of gums and starches, to be laid by till spring. All the trees and bushes have thus put by a store of nourishment. They will need it all next April, when the countless buds, studding the branches, begin to swell under our eyes, and they will need it still more in May, when young foliage begins to expand and when baby-blossoms are doing their growing.
The buds which open, here and there, in the autumn sunshine, are using capital which they ought not to touch for five months to come. But they can get only a small portion of this capital, and hence they seldom expand very far, even if mild weather continues. For the main stores of gum and starch are securely locked up, as we shall see, in the centre of the larger branches, so that the erring buds can only draw upon a few neighboring cells of the plant-tissue. When the ill-timed growth has exhausted these very limited resources it will cease, whether it is checked by the cold winds of autumn or not.