Tuesday, February 22, 2011


After posting Facebook pictures of the purple wildflowers that currently blanket the fields around Holly Grove, my home in rural Mississippi, a friend asked me their name. I’m sure any self-respecting naturalist would recognize them immediately, because they’re common, but I’ve never heard anyone call them anything and I didn’t find them in my grandmother’s dog-eared Golden Nature Guide to Familiar American Wildflowers, the reference to which is about as deep in that vein as I typically go. It was several weeks before the subject came up in conversation and two friends simultaneously blurted out "henbit." As in hen + bit.

I’ve seen what I now know to be henbit before – they’re weeds, more or less, but never in such profusion, and there’s a touch of magical realism in their magnificent, unexpected flowering this spring. One day it’s bleak and wintry; the next, a landscape painter’s dream, or a really good trip on acid. It would be possible to glance out a car window and see only a stereotypical, calendar-worthy scene, but I can also imagine the flowering as a prop in some old-time legend -- how the world turned lavender around some noteworthy event. The individual plants look a little like mint, and the flowers themselves appear insignificant up close, exerting their presence only en masse, when their color may change from purple to pink or blue, depending on the light.

If you’re prone to such musings, as I obviously am, it’s reasonable to consider this proliferation in scientific terms, perhaps even as an outgrowth of climate change -- of a specific set of meteorological circumstances that enabled the plants to flower on such a grand scale, at the expense of something else that normally consumes their space. The weather has undoubtedly been unusual of late. First there was last summer’s relentless drought, when the temperatures were in the hundreds for two months straight, followed by an unusually, enduringly hot autumn that collapsed into a notably sustained and bitter winter, which deposited snow and ice seven or eight times in a region that normally sees it only once every five years or so. We’ve been in the grips of a climatic free-for-all for the last year that illustrates, more graphically than usual, the shifting tides of temperature-mixing on our wobbly planet.

Continuing in that tend, the infamous winter receded in mid February as abruptly as it had begun, like a retreating jet stream tsunami, and the world once again turned unusually warm, and has remained so for a suspiciously long period. A sustained south wind at first brought slightly warmer yet still cool air that had previously been driven toward the equator, and after that came the familiar, muggy air of the Gulf of Mexico. It is logical to envision tornadoes ahead, as accompanied the abrupt transition from autumn to winter, and to suspect that cold still lurks in the wings, waiting for its unwitting victims to grow complacent and plant tomatoes. But for now, we have the caress of deserved warmth, and the unexpected majesty of purple fields.

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