How can you tell it’s cold?

When the temperature hits -20s, it’s cold for this part of BC. Add a little wind (it doesn’t take much) and the wind chill value makes it feel more like the prairies (I remember that well!). So we bundle up with extra layers, scarves, hoods and courage to take a daily walk. Don’t stay out as long as usual, head back for a hot cup of tea. Curl up with a good book and light the gas fireplace. Admire the snow that decorates the cedars, piling up on the patio bench …and what’s that?

It’s a song sparrow that hangs out here all winter, spending most of its time on the deck cleaning up sunflower seed that chickadees and others drop from the feeder. Not sure where it sleeps, but it’s a tough character. Looking more like a small brown puffball with a long handle, it has enough insulating feathers to survive. We gave it extra helpings of seed for Christmas.

The birds can inflate their feathered layers. What can plants do to show us it’s c-c-c-cold? Of course the maples, hawthorn, mountain ash and other deciduous trees lost their leaves long ago, so they simply stand fast within their tough bark. But what of those that hold onto leaves all winter? The rhododendron in the flower bed caught my attention recently. It’s an evergreen shrub, and after the recent cold snap moved in, I noticed its leaves had rolled up tightly, lengthwise. They drooped, looked dead. But next year’s buds appeared firm and healthy. What was going on?

Some suggest that this leaf droop and curl in some species of rhodos is an attempt to reduce the amount of light falling on the leaves. With no summer shade, light intensity is high in winter; could it damage the leaves? Interesting idea. Apparently, the more accepted thought is that once rhodo leaves freeze at about -8 Celsius, they are safer from damage during freeze/thaw cycles if they stay curled up (curling up was one of my winter defence mechanisms, too). Wise rhodos!

So just as the return of robins has always been a good indicator that spring is on the way, watch those rhodo leaves. When they flatten out, they must be dreaming of balmy summer days ahead, and their chance to show off glorious blooms once again.

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