Grasping at Straws, Squirrels and Caterpillars

The woolly bear caterpillar may be our answer to the the groundhog when it comes to predicting spring.

by Peter William Gribble
Charlotte Whitton, Ottawa’s Lady Mayoress when I was growing up had a good reputation for predicting the depths of winter woes by observing local squirrels each fall before they hibernated. Guarded about her techniques, she hinted near the end of her tenure; fat, glossy-furred squirrels in the fall foretold a long, cold winter – they were preparing for it – but she added this was merely one item from her divinatory toolbox.

Groundhogs don’t always get it right. Punxsutawney Phil and Wharton Willy are eastern phenomena after all, but who is our Westcoast weather oracle? When will winter be over? When is spring?

Did anyone see the woolly bear or hedgehog caterpillar stage of the Yellow Tiger Moth (Isia Isabella) to check the lengths of the black and reddish brown sections? Longer black ends sandwiching a narrower reddish brown midsection mean a harder, colder winter … or so the rumour goes.

Climate change will play increasing havoc with predictions. Remember last year? The second bad winter in a row? When the norm was one bad one for every ten good ones? Sounds a bit like Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dream of seven lean cows devouring seven fat ones (Genesis 41). No need for squirrels or woolly bears in ancient Egypt. Dreamers need only apply – but where was the Joseph to predict Arab Spring?

This winter’s squirrels – both grey and black – show no signs of hibernating. They’ve been digging up my crocus and tulip bulbs and noshing on unopened camellia buds. Neither fat nor glossy, I doubt they’ve exhausted their reserves. Slow treetop gambols and leisurely sea-serpenting across the lawn suggests they’ve little need to prepare for winter, long or short, not when they know I kindly planted a buffet of bulbs for them.

On December 17, 2018 at a garden centre, a woolly bear caterpillar fell at my feet out of a hanging Christmas tree (5-6ft Noble fir) and I took him/her home. The reddish brown midsection looked generous but needed proper measurement. Resting in a warm hand was enough to entice Yogi(ni) Woollyberra to uncurl and stretch. Warmth increases activity – you have to act quickly and gently or s/he curls up into a bristly ball, which rolls away easily.

The claw-like thoracic legs at the front were seen as were the little, stumpy prolegs – eight of them at the back plus the tail, which acts as a propulsive foot. Unfortunately, Yogi(ni) was too thickly furry to count segments, nor did I wish to traumatize the wee thing with an enforced shave or depilatory agent – certainly not before hibernation!

Lengths of each band would have to do. Front band: 12 mm, mid: 17 mm and hind end was 7 mm. Brown won indicating a mild winter.

I remembered to check the grower’s tag attached to the bottom of the Noble fir. It was grown in Woodburn, Oregon, a town south of Portland. The woolly bear was likely already primed to predict Oregon’s 2018-19 winter instead of ours. It’s doubtful there was enough time for Yogi(ni) to change his/her colour bands to reflect the latitudinal jolt northward. One wonders if a Yellow Tiger Moth can change stripes before their chrysalis bursts into its brief puberty. A sample size of one woolly bear leaves no room for inventive statistics.

As we stumble into the early stages of climatic chaos, we grasp at straws and caterpillars from out of a grab bag of prophetic choices.

Better than straws is a gardening journal. I have daily entries going back to February 2011. Events, botanical and otherwise would have long faded from memory without it.  

A journal keeps tabs and pace with the changes as you observe them. You’ll uncover interesting details over the years and notice patterns, correlations and interactions. Jotting down other’s discoveries enriches the record, too. An example: while the disappearance of lichens is a well known indicator of elevated levels of air pollution, a study last year found the dieback of a species of moss was directly related a rise in sulphur dioxide.  

Rereading last year’s entries showed January 2018’s balmy weather had quickly encouraged early growth. A ‘Fool’s Spring’ if ever there was one. Cold, hard slaps of February and March ended it and April was a chilly, rained out picnic. Some plants seemed to have foreknowledge of January’s deception. Snowdrops, always the first sign of spring, did not bloom with their customary abundance until March. This year they appear similarly cautious but other gardeners reported a January bonanza.

Watch for the flight of the juncos as spring approaches.

Birdlife offers clues to the weather if we can tease them out. Juncos begin to assemble in my backyard over the first two weeks of October then, around the first week of April, they disappear overnight in a single, startling departure. Some unseen clock or stimulus has opened the floodgates of instinct. Naturalists theorize Juncos may be aiming to be first out of the migration starting gate against the massive flight from further south passing overhead in May – the earliest bird gets the best nesting site. At the other end of the spectrum, one year the busy clouds of winter bush tits never left the backyard. If my constant supply of suet played its role, how accurate will our interpretations be if we don’t clarify the instinct (Nature) vs. suet (Nurture) debate?

The first flowering of the winter honeysuckle is another sign to watch for.

Plants are gardeners’ oracles. This year most appear to be on schedule compared to last. Himalayan Sweet Box (Sarcoccoca) started blooming in January and continues to perfume February. Last year, it was March, the latest flowering I’ve ever seen. My Lonicera fragrantissima (Winter Honeysuckle) is also on track. Skimmea flower panicles are ready to bloom February and March. Last year, they also bloomed late and were covered with desperate honey bees who had missed the apple and cherry blossoms because it was too cold to fly. Skimmea is a favourite of flies not bees but starvation slashes choices. Bees made better pollinators and never were there so many Skimmea berries as last year.

Anomalies persist despite our winter-spring season growing close enough to expectations. Along with my Snowdrops, early varieties of Daffodils seem late-ish, too, as if afraid of seeing their shadows. Iberis (Candytuft) began its usual January bloom without incident but I was thrown by one plant so prematurely out of season I didn’t recognize it: Dame’s Rocket.

Hesperis matronalis or Dame’s Rocket is a common wildflower blooming mid to late spring with phlox-like, softly scented flowers ranging in white, lavender or purple. I have allowed it to spread in part by tricking this biennial plant – green growth the first year; flowers and seeds the second – to produce flowers every year instead of dying at the end of the second year. Simply cut back the spent flowers immediately to keep your Hesperis from seeding itself. My six and seven year old plants, desperate to produce progeny, put on a grand show … in April and May, not January.

This January Hesperis is an orphan growing well away from the cultivated others and snuck up a single sprig of three, pale purple flowers. Pollinators – if there are any – will have their way with this one. I’ll let the plant go to seed and sow the results. A winter-blooming Hesperis – who would’ve thought? But what prompted it to bloom so far out of season in the first place? Mother Nature may be on to me. If she’s trying to sidestep my springtime cutback habits, she’s succeeded.

A mathematical model might remove interference from already mixed messages. Equations and algorithms need reliable data sets, which depend on precise description and definition. West End microclimates (our balconies) feature a marked perpendicularity measurable by floor number. As important is the West End’s curious skew in its orientation … not that kind of orientation but the north-south axes deviating more than 40º from true north – and the rest of Vancouver’s street grid. Factoring numerical equivalents of: balcony size, elevation, overhang, exposure, hours of sunlight, degrees from true north, days above freezing, blockage from other towers …

Glimpses of Spring are more likely than Spring itself with these parameters! Forget equations and algorithms.

Since ambiguity, mixed messages and contrary signs slow decisions maybe these are the indicators we should pay attention to but as a whole. Together, they seem to say, ‘Delay … delay everything.’

As if a second opinion was necessary for this revelation, yesterday I checked Yogi(ni) nestled within a carefully layered bed of dead leaves set in a covered flower pot on the back porch. There s/he was, curled up tight, hibernating in the Downward-facing Caterpillar.

Might as well do the same.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Due to an editing error, a column from several years ago appeared earlier in this space. The mistake has been corrected and we apologize for any confusion.