Friday, June 21st, is the summer solstice, so from here on out, the “Daily Beauty” feature will be bringing you summer blooms, blooms like the one spotted today, Cotinus corrygria, the plant we in central Virginia call “smoketree” and sometimes “smokebush”
Marc and I have tons of smoketree in the nursery this time of year: babies, two- and three-year plants of one of the purple varieties rooted from layers. We chose them for our guerrilla gardening restoration project because, as a class, they’re lovely: hardy (found in zones 5 through 8 here in the east), not particularly prone to insects or disease–and the cloudy drifts of smoky pink (for the green-leafed variety) or purple inflorescences they sport in varying forms from June through August are just spectacular.
[If you want to know precisely how spectacular take a drive past Morven, the former John Kluge estate now owned by the University of Virginia. There’s an “allee” of mature blonde, pink, and purple smoketrees that undulates for miles in either direction to and from the entrance to the estate on Va. 795 (the “James Monroe Highway,” which runs past Ash Lawn).
Cotinus joins the other shrubs and small trees in early bloom I’ve spotted driving around town the past week to ten days: the pink slipper trees (mimosas) lavishing their delicate scent on the soft, humid air; the oakleaf hydrangeas aging now to pink, along with the white “Annabelles” and the mopheads in their Easter egg hues of blue, purple, and pink; the neon pink spireas; the abelia grandifloras (especially the juicy ones six feet tall and wide) with their showers of tiny pink and white blooms, beloved of butterflies and bees.
And birds. The birds, too, in their glory this season.
I’m not good at spotting birds. Near-sighted and astigmatic–visual is something I have to work for. But, choir-singin’ poetry-lovin’ church daughter that I am, I do hear birdsong extraordinarily well.
The first bird voice I learned to love was the mournful whistle of the white-throated sparrow, a voice I hear rarely since I moved from the outskirts of town (Woolen Mills) to the city, with its ubiquitous light and noise pollution. But even here, robins wake me every morning. I’ve learned to distinguish the voices of the cardinals, mockingbirds, starlings, jays, and sparrows that chatter just above my level of sight every day. I’ve learned to hear the voices of meadowlarks, orioles, and tanagers when I drive out into the country.
The poetry lover in me recalls me of one of the oldest songs I learned when I left public schools for privates in the long-ago segregated South. “Cuckoo Song,” it’s known as–from eight centuries ago.
“Sumer is icumen in,/ Lhude sing cuccu!/ Groweth sed, and bloweth med,/ And springth the wude nu—/ Sing cuccu!
Substitute “robin” or “mockingbird” for “cuccu” (cuckoo), and you have a song for southeastern North America circa 2013.
“Awe [ewe] bleteth after lomb,/ Lhouth [lows] after calve cu [cow]/ Bulluc sterteth [leaps], bucke verteth [farts],/ Murie [merry] sing cuccu!/ Cuccu, cuccu, well singes thu, cuccu:/ Ne swike thu [nor cease ye] naver nu…”
Eight centuries old–and yet not dated.
[Source: Quiller-Couch, Arthur, ed. The Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250-1918. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1919.]