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Harbingers of Spring

March 2, 2014

It has been a cold winter here in the southern clime. Temperatures in the single digits have registered on my barn thermometer several mornings. One or two encounters with snow and ice added to the dramatic reminder of just how severe winter can be. Even in the face of a polar vortex though, I noticed green shoots emerging from the earth. On the day of the heaviest snowfall this year I saw a single yellow daffodil in bloom.

While another wintery blast or two will surely come our way, the warmer days last week brought a hint of spring to the Upstate. The Eastern bluebirds are searching for a place to nest. Before long purple martin scouts will arrive to find a place to stay until fall. After a gentle rain last week at least five robins plucked earthworms from our yard. Male goldfinches are turning from their winter olive drab to the bright yellow feathers that give them their name. Clare has already seen a hummingbird near the kitchen window. The birds know that spring is in the air!

Stepping through our garden gate, we are greeted by spreading white and pink Lenten roses and nodding golden jonquils. They will soon be followed by purple crocus, delicate grape hyacinths, and the spikes of pale blue scilla. These plants compose a companion carpet beneath flowering trees. I have noticed a hint of yellow pollen beginning to cover my truck and porch furniture. My eyes are beginning to itch, and my sinuses are congested. Can spring be far away?

The nonstop procession of flowering trees in springtime is a wonder to behold. In our backyard, a weeping cherry tree is ready to burst into full bloom. Bradford pears, Sergeant crabapples, and Yoshino cherries each take their turn at beautifying the southern landscape. In Spartanburg, Pine Street and W. O. Ezell Boulevard will soon be lined with blossoms. Flowering peach and apple trees across the Upstate promise abundant fruit at roadside stands in the summer months ahead. The winged elm that grows near the hemlocks and the sassafras that stands above the rhododendron have less conspicuous green flowers adding a subtle touch of grace to the glory of early spring.

Among the most eagerly awaited blossoms in our yard and throughout the Piedmont are those of the redbuds and dogwoods. These two trees are closely connected in several ways. Redbuds burst forth into full bloom in March, while dogwoods flower in April. The redbuds are covered with a profusion of purplish pink flowers all along the branches. Heart-shaped leaves follow the flowers. Old-time herbalists report that its flowers, which have an agreeable acid taste, can be added to salads or used in the making of pickles. In the good old days, smaller redbud branches were boiled to make a pink dye for homespun yarn.

The dogwood is the most common flowering tree that dapples the woodlands of much of the United States in mid- to late spring. Described as America’s most beloved flowering tree, it has been designated the official tree of several states. Pioneers learned from the Native Americans that dogwood bark could be used to make remedies for various illnesses, including fever and headaches. Its roots were boiled to make a scarlet dye.

The redbud and the dogwood have similarities beyond their herbal use, their usefulness as sources of dye, and their sheer beauty.  They are both small understory trees. That means they grow beneath the canopy of larger woodland trees. Generally quite hardy, both are suitable as ornamental trees for gardens. Each tree will reseed readily – redbuds from distinctive seedpods and dogwoods from bright red berries. More significant perhaps is that redbuds and dogwoods are connected in southern folklore by the season of Lent, the forty days before Easter.

The legend of the dogwood holds that until the time of the crucifixion of Christ, dogwoods grew to reach the size of mighty oaks. So strong and solid was the wood that it was chosen as the timber for the cross of Jesus. To be used for such a cruel death was distressing to the tree. In compassion, the Creator declared that the tree to which Jesus was nailed would never again be used as a cross. From that time forth, the dogwood has been slender, bent, and twisted, not as a punishment but as a blessing. In sympathy to the suffering of Christ, the dogwood bore white blossoms in the shape of a cross, with two long and two short petals. Each petal bears, on its outer edge, the print of a rusty nail. At the center of each flower, red as if stained with blood, is a crown of thorns. The flowers themselves are reminders of the Good Friday story.

Though the blooming of the dogwood tree coincides with Holy Week, the flowering of the redbud tree coincides with the Ides of March, the date of infamy on which Brutus betrayed Julius Caesar. The redbud tree represents betrayal, not by Brutus, but by Judas Iscariot. People of the southern Appalachian Mountains have long referred to the redbud as the Judas tree.

An ancient woodcut by the artist Castor Durante depicts the figure of Judas hanging, as an act of suicide, from a redbud branch. Again the tradition was so distressing that, rather than cursing the redbud as a symbol of betrayal, the Creator blessed the tree with heart-shaped leaves that are in full display by Good Friday. The leaves serve as a reminder for those who believe in the story of Christ’s death so long ago that the heart of God is loving.

When our family lived in another city we became friends with an older couple who were avowed agnostics. They were aware of the legends of both the redbud and the dogwood. Both trees grew in their beautiful garden.

“Should we cut them down because of the legends?” the husband asked rhetorically.

“Absolutely not!” his wife answered. “We’ll keep them because they are beautiful trees.”

And so they are!

For me, these flowering trees of spring are evidence enough of the mystery and the majesty of a divine creative hand.

Kirk H. Neely
© March 2014
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