Midwinter Spring

Crow Poison  ~ Nothoscordum bivalve

A member of the lily family, this delicate native — sometimes called Crow Poison and sometimes false garlic — is one of our earliest spring wildflowers. On the morning of January 7, a scattering of these plants, basking in dew-drying sunlight alongside a Brazoria County road, brought to mind a portion of T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding.”

Midwinter spring is its own season,
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice on pond and ditches
In windless cold that is the heart’s heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.
And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier,
Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire
In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing
The soul’s sap quivers. There is no earth smell
Or smell of living thing. This is the spring time
But not in time’s covenant. Now the hedgerow
Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom
Of snow, a bloom more sudden
Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading,
Not in the scheme of generation.
Where is the summer, the unimaginable
Zero summer?
                                             “Little Gidding” ~ T.S. Eliot

Comments always are welcome.
For the complete text of “Little Gidding,” please click here.

61 thoughts on “Midwinter Spring

    1. The post-dawn sun still was low enough that the flower cast its own shadow on those droplets. The linear effect was accidental, but pleasing. As for our spring: I’ve had a sense that it’s coming relatively quickly this year. I could be wrong, but the robins have arrived, and a couple of our other wildflowers have tentatively appeared. One showed up at Walden West on January 1, qualifying it for my last, December, WW post.

  1. Such a pretty flower should have nicer names! Excellent shot.
    I had to look up “sempiternal,” but love that poem, containing a whole album of images and lots of intriguing puzzles in the phrases.

    1. ‘Crow poison’ got that name because of its presumed use by Native Americans to keep the crows out of their corn. Opinion about whether that really happened seems to be divided, but the name stuck. Whatever the crows think of it, the bees and flies love it.

      The first time I ran into ‘sempiternal’ I had to look it up, too. Now, it’s on my list of favorite ‘s’ words, along with ‘susurration,’ ‘sluice,’ and ‘scintilla.’

    1. Here in coastal Texas they’re actually quite common. They don’t appear in numbers, but individual flowers, or even small patches, do show up. I’ve found everything from Blue-eyed grass to Indian paintbrush in January; I like to think of them as ‘scouts,’ testing the conditions for their friends.

      These little flowers were spread throughout the Brazoria refuge and Galveston Island last weekend. Again, they were scattered, but there were enough to make clear the mid-December freeze didn’t bother them at all.

    1. Isn’t that a wonderful image? Eliot was a master when it came to creating lines like that. To be honest, spring is coming too quickly for me; I have a lot of work to do before I can take time off to go flower-chasing, and the time to chase is right around the corner.

      1. That’s true–it’s difficult to stay at home when nature is reawakening outside, I also get very restless. I hope you will be able to catch up on some of your projects before the spring flowers beckon.

    1. If you were a Native American — or anyone for that matter — with a pile of corn to protect from the crows, you might feel differently. It seems that’s where the name originated; the Cherokees have a legend that it was mixed with corn to keep the crows away. Whether it was effective I can’t say, but the name stuck. I rather like it.

  2. We had a taste of midwinter spring last week – at least weather-wise. This week we’re back to midwinter winter, NC style. This is definitely the time of year when I’m glad we moved back home from Ohio!

    1. The spring thaws sure could be short-lived in Iowa. As I recall, there often was one prior to the boys’ basketball tournament blizzard in March: one of our state traditions. I suppose Ohio was much the same. On the other hand, you have about twenty degrees on my Iowa home town tonight; I’d be happy to be where you are, too. Midwinter winter in NC doesn’t look too bad.

    1. The leaves of the wild iris at San Bernard are up about eight inches now. I’m always late to that particular party, but this year I’m going to try and keep to a Texas schedule rather than the internal Iowa schedule that says “Spring is in April!”

  3. I love the delicate look of those droplets. The daffodils here seem to be having a bit of a midwinter spring – hope they don’t regret it. (But just leaves at this stage.)

    1. Our wild iris are beginning to appear, too. So many flowers like your daffodils, our iris, and others, are tough little things. I’ve seen photos of Texas daffodils blooming in snow; our midwestern tulips would do the same thing. It has to be exciting for you to see those new photographic subjects peeking up!

    1. “Little Gidding” is one of the poems that make up Eliot’s Four Quartets. There’s a site with the full text online. Some of it’s beyond me, and some simply doesn’t appeal, but if pressed to take just one piece of literature with me to a desert island, the Four Quartets might do it. I’m always discovering something that pairs nicely with the current season, like this selection with the crow poison.

  4. You know, Linda, we used to have what the old timers called a January thaw, a brief (welcome) period in the deep of winter when the temperatures moderated and Mother Nature relaxed with a heavy sigh. Lately, this winter at least, things have been so up and down odd that nobody seems to know what’s happening with the weather. Nice to spot this beauty in January, even if your area doesn’t typically get snow.

    1. Those January thaws were wonderful. Did you get the same warnings I did — not to stand beneath the icicles, and to stay off the ponds? Getting the fishing shacks off the lakes before the ice thinned always was a trick, too. Inevitably, someone would wait too long; more than one fish shack has gone to the bottom. Then, there were heavy sighs!

    1. There’s nothing like a few degrees of latitude to affect the timing of spring. When I moved to Texas, it took me forever to begin getting over the feeling that February should be the heart of winter, and not full-on spring. I’ve sometimes missed our wildflower displays because I started looking too late. I’m learning!

  5. I haven’t read Little Gidding in decades. What a throwback to college! I’ve heard of false garlic but if we have it around here it’ll be months away.

    1. I had a professor in seminary who used literary texts as the basis for his teaching, and Eliot was one of his favorites. On the other hand, I’ll never forget his characterization of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick: as a man with an infinite grudge against the universe. It took a couple of decades, but I certainly understand now what he was talking about.

  6. Along with an appreciation of your gorgeous photo, I learned a n new word: Sempiternal.
    Not entirely sure where I’d use it, but glad to know it.

    1. There’s nothing like a new word. This poem is where I met ‘sempiternal’ for the first time, and had to go running to the dictionary. I may never use it, but if I run across it again, at least I’ll know what it means. And isn’t that crow poison pretty? They’re all over now. I even saw them in a couple of lawns today. Given their propensity to bloom late into the fall as well as being early in spring, it’s hard to say if these are coming or going.

  7. That is an early spring flower when it occurs before spring. Here in Australia of course we are in midsummer although my tomatoes are hardly flowering. A strange cold summer while in Europe they have a winter heatwave with 19C detected in Latvia a week ago or so.

    1. We’ve been among the lucky ones this year. We did have a brief period of freezing weather in mid-December, but that’s not especially unusual. Because of our location, cold fronts coming down from the north and warm fronts easing in from the Gulf tend to alternate. In spring and fall, they often collide over the top of us, and we say, “Hello, thunderstorms and tornados.” It’s never boring, that’s for sure, and one of the benefits always is the early arrival of flowers like these.

    1. I worked for those curves — the tallest flower was just under four inches tall. By the time I got off the ground, the flower wasn’t the only thing wet with dew!

  8. “Midwinter spring” is nature, having swum underwater thus far through the cold season, surfacing, checking land marks, getting a good deep breath, submerging and swimming on grimly and doggedly toward spring.

  9. In my typical way, I have been hugely distracted by the bivalve in the Crow Poison’s latin name. It took me on a flight to brachiopods and bivalves and a long forgotten satirical song made up in an archeology lab. I currently have a copy of The Farm by Berry out for browsing. I may have to pull the Four Quartets as well…and yes, what a season of discovery this time can be, as well as glimmering hope that the season will turn.

    1. When I came across the scientific name of this one, my first thought was, “Oysters!”

      I know the specific epithet means “two sides” or “two valves” referring to a pair of bracts on the flowering stems, but I still couldn’t wrap my mind around the use of ‘valves.’ It’s etymology to the rescue. In the late 14th century, valve meant “one of the halves of a folding door,” and the word came from Latin valva: “section of a folding or revolving door,” By the 1660s, it was used in zoology to refer to ‘halves of a hinged shell.’ Oysters!

      There’s no need for the library when it comes to the Four Quartets. There’s a good online text of the whole thing here. There are some very slight differences between it and what I have in a collection of Eliot’s work, but they primarily involve punctuation.

      1. Interesting that the classification came first with plants. I can see that. Not everyone would have access to oysters or clams. My copy of the Four Quartets dates to the late 70s or the 80s and it has coffee stains on it. But it’s still eminently readable. I look forward to more of your writing as well.

        1. If there’s anything better than a personal copy of Eliot’s work, it’s a copy with coffee stained pages. I always enjoy the ‘signs of life’ I get when I purchase used copies of books.

          1. Yes. It’s interesting to me that I rarely reread fiction but I turn back to poetry often. As years go by and I learn more from life, some new insight pops up more often than not. I think it’s the condensed nature of the language.

            1. I have several books I re-read on a regular basis: Annie Dillard, Flannery O’Connor, Didion, and so on. I tend to jot notes in margins, so years ago I started using differently colored inks for different years. Going back and discovering what I thought ten years ago can be interesting.

            2. I imagine so. The first time I saw Casablanca, in my early 20s, it seemed so tragic that Elsa had to leave Rick. 30 years later, watching it with friends, I had a completely different reaction. “Get on the plane, girl. That dude loves you. Rick…Rick is trouble.” I’ve had other completely opposite reactions to the few novels I’ve reread, but mostly it’s a deeper understanding of something informed by more experience. We really do change and the journey is interesting.

    1. I noticed some of our native irises have their leaves up already — about eight inches’ worth. I can’t remember now who mentioned it, but someone in a more northerly location mentioned seeing their daffodil leaves. Even if yours haven’t yet emerged, I’m sure they’re contemplating it!

  10. I have to admit neither name is particularly flattering but I guess False Garlic sounds a bit more inviting, especially to a crow. A lily by any other name, I guess. Pretty flower.

    1. I suppose ‘crow poison’ is what happens when the namers are more concerned with function than with aesthetics. If you wanted to protect your corn from crows, you might tend more toward that name, too!

  11. Whether one focuses on “poison” or “false”, once the bloom is in front of you, names no longer matter. The beauty of nature needs no nomenclature.

    I am as eager as the bloom for Spring! It was 34 F here in central Florida this morning with the extra-added attraction of a 20 mph breeze.

    Interestingly, Florida has another species it calls Crowpoison in addition to your Nothoscordum bivalve, which is in the ALLIACEAE family. Stenanthium densum is in the MELANTHIACEAE family and is called Crowpoison or Osceola’s Plume.

    1. When I looked up your Stenanthium densum, my first thought was of the beargrass that a friend in Montana sometimes shows. Then, I remembered seeing something akin to them both in photos of Texas wildflowers. Sure enough. In the central part of Texas, there’s Zigadenus nuttallii, or Nuttall’s Death Camus, which looks remarkably like your crow poison. The FNPS page notes that S. densum also is known as Zigadenus densus!

      Who needs mystery novels when we have taxonomy? I do love a good puzzle.

    1. You’re always the first to mention the tenpetal anemones. I took a look at iNaturalist to see if anyone else was spotting them, but the only (two) photos of them in bloom were in Williamson and Bastrop counties.

      One of the ways to tell this flower from the false garlic and false onion is that this one neither tastes nor smells like either of them. That’s the bit of advice often offered on foraging sites to help distiguish them from the edible plants.

  12. Interesting name, crow poison, as was your description of how it got that name in one of the comments. It’s also interesting how names sometimes stick, even if they end up not really having the meaning implied.

    1. It was interesting to learn from another reader that Florida also has a plant called Crow Poison, although it’s in an entirely different family, and related to the so-called ‘death Camas.’ The Florida version sounds as though it could take out a neighborhood of crows, not to mention some unlucky cattle, or even humans. Our Crow Poison has begun showing up in larger swaths, and it really can be beautiful. I was pleased to find some in full bloom, and I’ll post those shortly, just so people unfamiliar with the plant can see what a lovely little flower it is.

  13. I think we’re a ways yet from a midwinter spring. Maybe in another month or so, when the crocus start poking up.

    “Sempiternal?” Sometimes I think poets invent words, just cause they sound interesting, and hope the sound catches on. He couldn’t have simply said eternal, for the benefit of we non-linguists?

    1. Eliot didn’t invent ‘sempiternal,’ and although the distinction may be a fine one, it does refer to something other than things ‘eternal.’ ‘Sempiternal’ refers to things which last through time, while ‘eternal’ refers to things outside of time. I know, I know. It’s those danged philosophers and their distinctions again.

      Still, as poetry, I’m with Eliot. Look at that alliteration: season, sempiternal, sodden, sundown, and suspended all within one phrase. The man was a genius, if sometimes a bit opaque.

    1. Now, these flowers are beginning to open up, so I’ll show a few in their full glory. For such a tiny thing, they really are pretty, and they attract great numbers of insects like hoverflies. Useful and beautiful!

  14. …and when I did look up sempiternal, I was confused. Why not just say “eternal”? But Wikipedia helped me understand: “Everlasting, that is, having infinite temporal duration (as opposed to eternal: outside time and thus lacking temporal duration altogether.”

    1. Leave it to the good Mr. Eliot to pull that construction off! I’ve read right past ‘sempiternal’ dozens of times, but finally did exactly what you did. I went off and figured out the difference between that word and ‘eternal.’ In the context of the poem and Eliot’s musings on time and history, it’s perfect.

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