The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Out of Doors in February.
[John Ellor Taylor (1837-1895) was F.L.S. (Fellow of the Linnean Society of London) and F.G.S. (Fellow of the Geological Society of London) Initials on Wikipedia His articles from Volume 1 of The Parents' Review were reprinted in Volume 13.]
February is the month when we get the first whiff of approaching spring. Now and then comes a soft, sunny, balmy day when the "bare, woody choirs" are alive with bird music. On such days we see the sky possessed with a blueness it is seldom marked by during any other month--a Myosotis kind of delicate blue, due to the abundance presence of watery vapour in the atmosphere. Across the blue heavens the big balls of white clouds float rapidly, driven by the strong currents of air high up above, which occasionally come down to the earth in the evening and blow a miniature gale.
Fine days in February are an out-of-doors treat. Green things are peeping out of the cold earth on every sunny bank. The earliest of the spring flowers timidly show themselves where it is warmest. It is like a resurrection from the dead! On the hedge banks facing the south you are sure to find that firstling of the year, barren strawberry--so called because of the close resemblance of its flower and leaves to the true wild strawberry (for which it is often mistaken). The leaves and flowers of the latter, however, are larger; and, moreover, it bears the well-known fruit, whereas the barren strawberry produces none that is edible, whence its name. The barren strawberry has a peculiar interest for me. It belongs to that wide-spread pomologically wealthy order, the rosaceae. Many of its members grow up into fruit trees, like the apple, pear, cherry, almond, &c. They bear flowers whose beauty has engraved itself on the imagination of the world, like the rose, and fruits which appear among the earliest myths of mankind, like the apple. Though the barren strawberry belongs to a good stock, its forbears were not able to keep pace with the rapid advance of other members of the family, wherefore it was left behind to grow where it could and how it could--a "poor relation," in short. There have been a good many ups and downs in floral families, as well as in human!
Here, on this stiff clay land, where the sun's light and heat fall most freely, is another characteristic February plant, the coltsfoot--well known in the North of England as a supposed curer of colds, and as an ingredient in the preparation of that delightful sweetmeat, "coltsfoot rock." It is a composite flower: that is, the supposed flower is really a colony of flowerets or florets, grouped together in a common head so as to be collectively more attractive to the few insects flying about and the first bees on the look out for much-needed pollen. Nothing interests a thoughtful boy or girl more than to dissect one of those coltsfoot flower heads with a needle, and to lay out, one after another, on the back of the hand, hundreds of delicate, perfectly-shaped yellow flowers, which, by the aid of a shilling pocket lens, are seen to possess petals, stamens, and pistil. The calyx of each tiny flower is reduced to a series of fine hairs which, after the tender florets have been fertilised and have died down, will collectively form the big white "clock" which the wind will scatter about, the calyx having been transformed into a parachute for carrying the seeds away.
["Coltsfoot rock" is rock candy with coltsfoot flavoring. The flower resembles a dandelion.]
We hardly see the trace of a leaf about when the first coltsfoot appears. This is true of other spring plants, such as the butterbur, growing on the banks of rivers, and partly so of the celandine and violet. The coltsfoot is so eager to have its flower heads fertilised that it pushes them up first. The leaves take their time, and come afterwards.
Towards the end of the month, especially in rich soils, appears the lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria), surely one of the most suggestive of early flowers. Everybody knows the glossy yellow petals, extended like golden stars, hence Wordsworth's ponderous joke--he was an astronomer who had discovered a new star! It was a favourite flower of that earnest poet of Nature. The lesser celandine varies a good deal in the number of its petals, from nine to twelve. If we examine an unusually vigorous growth of its dark, heart-shaped leaves, we shall find round yellow patches on the underside. By the aid of a pocket lens (which nobody who loves to examine flowers should be without) these are resolved into lovely little yellow cups, all clustered together. They are therefore called "cluster cups," and are in reality parasitic funguses on the celandine, for plants are liable to epidemic and other diseases, just like men and women. The "cluster cup" disease, which is common to the leaves of most flowering plants, is a kind of vegetable small-pox.
The daisies in the fields have been struggling all the winter through, like brave British flowers. I gathered some on Christmas Day. They never say die! They would be perennial if they could, and they almost are; so the daisy well deserves its Latin name of Bellis perennis. Perhaps no other flower has gained such an immortal place in English literature. Like the coltsfoot, the daisy is not a flower, but a colony of flowers. You might as well call a bee-hive an insect--it is a colony of insects. And, just as a bee-hive contains bees which differ from each other--queen, drones, workers--so does a daisy-head contain flowers that differ. The crimson-tipped petals are true flowerets. Dissect one out with a needle. There is the remnant of the pistil, now completely barren. Compare any one of the six score florets which compose the yellow disk, each a perfect flower, with its crowded stamens, forming a ring, through which the pistil forces its way, like the brush of a chimney-cleaner coming through the flue. Take to pieces the floral machinery of a daisy. Note the flat indented disk in which yellow florets and white strap-shaped florets alike were imbedded. Observe, what every child has observed, how the daisies "go to sleep" at nights, or on cloudy days, and then you perceive how the closing of the flower-head is due to the bending over and protecting of the perfect flowers of the disk by the barren and imperfect ones, as if it were the duty of the latter to nurse and protect their more perfect sisters.
It is a time of refreshing, is February. The lovely purple dead-nettle nestles at the foot of the thorns on sunny hedge banks, the upper and smaller leaves being almost as pink as the flower. It will scarce bear removal before it shrivels, for it needs much moisture. But if you can transfer the purple dead-nettle to water as soon as you pluck it, it will grace your room for many days. The longer white dead-nettle flourishes all through the winter in sheltered places, but in February it is a common country road-side plant, its hooded white flower forming rings round the square stalks where the leaves appear. Close by is that poisonous plant, the dog's mercury, with unattractive pendant green flowers. There are no petals to render its flowers beautiful, for it is fertilised by the wind, which requires no colour to tempt it. The stamens are on one set of flowers, produced by a separate plant, and the pistils on another. These are consequently spoken of as male and female plants respectively. On the hazel bush, at the foot of which we perhaps find the dog's mercury growing, the male and female flowers are found residing on the same plant, but not together. The dangling catkins will leave quite a yellow mark on the coat sleeve if gentle knocked against it. These catkins were all formed last summer, but they wait till February to develop, for then the wind will blow the pollen about. The female flower of the hazel is the little bud crowned by a couple of feathery scarlet threads. Examine them through the pocket-lens, and say if you saw anything more beautiful. If only a few of the yellow, dust-like pollen grains yielded so abundantly by the catkins be conveyed to these scarlet threads, that little bud will eventually ripen to a nut.
The gorse is out in flower on the commons. It is another perennially flowering plant, which has given rise to the Nottinghamshire proverb about kisses being in season. In the copses, the green-flowered but sweet-smelling spurge-laurel (Daphne Laureola), will be found--an English evergreen. The blackthorn is in blossom along the lanes, the flowers coming before the leaves in this case also. Nobody dare gather the blackthorn, for it is said to be an unlucky flower to bring into the house! Whence comes this idea of "luck"? It is surely a relic of the old Norse Pagan thought, for man or woman cannot hold a firm and trustful belief in God's providence and yet believe in "luck." Perhaps a joke underlies the saying, for the flowers of the blackthorn are so fugacious--that is, they drop off so easily and rapidly--that by the time you get a flowering branch home, the flowers will have disappeared.
With the opening flowers come the insects, although as yet few of them. On bright sunny days we are sure to see the common tortoiseshell butterfly. It has been hibernating in a state of semi-torpidity, all through the cold months, but the warmth and sunlight have aroused it into new life. It will lie up again when the cold returns. No insect is better known than this, from its chequered brownish red and black marked wings. It settles in front of you, and depresses and elevates its wings as if it were anxious you should admire them, as you do. The brimstone butterfly--a much larger object--perhaps overtakes you in your walks, travelling on wing about three times as fast as you can. When it settles down you can hardly see it, for the greenish-yellow of the outside wings, when closed, and their little footstalk-like projections, make it resemble a faded greenish-yellow cap, such as linger here and there all the winter through on our wayside shrubs.
Perhaps you will notice a curious fly, about the size of a hive bee, only with a rounded body. It hovers here and there over flowers like a diminutive hawk. If you catch one, you are struck with its near resemblance to the bee family, and you are perhaps afraid it will sting. Examine its wings an you find there are only two. It is therefore a dipterous fly, and its similitude to a bee is protective. It is a case of mimicry. The insect is Bombylius major.
The missel thrushes are singing on the tree tops all the day long. The thrushes and blackbirds in the thickets, except where on family cares intent. Nest-building is going apace with all members of the thrush family, and especially with the juniors. The latter cannot wait till the hedges have leaved so as to protect their nests. They risk it, as many other young married couples do. The nest of the thrush is lined with mud, usually with cow dung, to keep out the wind from the naked fledglings. What is a more lovely sight, in the beginning of the year, than the rice turquoise blue of the thrushes' eggs? Those of the blackbird are less striking. I confess I have never beheld the first thrush's nest or hedge sparrow's nest of the year, with their blue gems of eggs, without a thrill of delight!
February is a busy time. It is the season for marrying and giving in marriage among our home-staying British birds. The rooks are holding their parliaments on the tree tops, and discoursing the wedding dowries and deeds, as well as planning domestic architectural arrangements for the ensuing season. The skylark has retuned his lute, and is singing at Heaven's gate every day when there is a little wind, for he can hardly rise from the ground on an absolutely still day. At night the tawny owl begins to turn out of the hollow tree wherein he has been sheltering, half hibernating, during the cold days of winter. The viper crawls forth on sunny days, a terribly timid creature, much more liable to fright than the people who shudder when they see it. The harmless blindworm (which is not blind, neither is it a "worm," but a footless lizard) may be found in warm places coiled up like so much thick copper wire. It does not make a bad pet, and is as harmless as a butterfly.
Towards the end of February the gates of spring are thrown wide open. In thereat come the first arrivals of migratory birds. The moths turn out at nights when it is warm enough, and more numerous butterflies by day.
Typed by happi, Aug 2019; Proofread by LNL, Apr 2020
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