Nature’s thermometer

The mother of a dear and lifelong friend, herself also a very special part of my growing-up, became rather debilitated as her years crept way up there. Unable to participate in many of the activities she had previously loved (I think now of taffy pulls especially), Margaret was not one to let life get away.

She took up art. (And why not?) I remember particularly visiting one wintry day when she was seated at the front window, sketch book in hand, drawing the leaves of the rhododendron just beyond. Her observations and keen interest had led her to discover that the leaves of the plant opened and closed depending on the temperature of the moment.

She had skillfully drawn examples of the leaves from zero until closer to thawing. Another lesson learned and gratefully remembered. (Not all of the good ones are, I’m sad to say.)

This all came back to me last winter when, probably taking coffee grounds out since I’m told my plants love the acid, I saw the tightly closed leaves. I could sympathize for my limbs would be as taut were I to be outside lightly clad for more than half a minute. I don’t deny loving the indoors when it gets really cold out there.

The rhododendrons were here before I moved in. Last week’s column described them as an eight-foot bank which is no exaggeration. (Others have been planted over the years but seem much less enthusiastic about hanging in there.) These put on the most spectacular show every year, another one of those perfect times to try to invite guests. (Apple blossoms are also high on my list and few can resist the goslings.)

Getting scholarly for a moment, I learned that rhododendron (I always have to stop and think before spelling it) can be found on every continent except Africa and South America. I suspect they’d find happy places there too if encouraged. It’s the national flower of Nepal and the state flower of West Virginia and magnificent wherever they grow while they are in flower. Nice part of course is that they are an evergreen shrub so make a dramatic border no matter what the season.

Azaleas, I read, belong in the same family. I don’t think anyone told mine that for they struggle rather haplessly year after year, gifts from loved ones whom I would prefer to remember by something a little more vigorous. And they definitely are deciduous though I guess some rhododendrons are as well. Not mine.

It occurs to me as I write that, while some can share my photos, many readers are denied that chance. I described as best I could the winter leaf, closed as tightly as a miser’s fist. I also realize that it is time to get off the keyboard long enough to actually go SEE what a hot leaf does look like.

I’m surprised. The leaves stretch out from the branches horizontally, reminding me of a kid floating in the lake on his back, arms stretched straight out to his sides. Ahhh, spring! Yes, summer!

And of course between all those leaves, the buds grow larger by the day and colors appear, just waiting until they can open in total splendor.

My “research” has illumined me even further. Those shrubs are hardly eight feet tall. Let’s try 10 at least. I know I haven’t shrunk that far!

Susan Crossett is a Cassadaga resident. Send comments to