Baby, it’s Cold Outside

Many of my neighbors have big thermometers in their yards that tell temperature, time, barometric pressure, the Dow Jones Industrial average and who knows what else. I don’t have one, but then, I don’t need one. I have rhododendrons. I like to think of them as nature’s thermometer. Rhododendron have a large, leathery leaves which normally spread wide. But when the temperature falls, they curl in on themselves, edges turning under, to lessen their overall exposure to the cold. Frigid air can’t easily cross the curled leaf, and it doesn’t dry out quite as much as it might. Too much water loss can kill a shrub. The branches get in on the act when it gets really freezing-they hang down toward the ground, when normally they stretch out wide.

The rhodie is a very accurate forecaster. If the leaves curl up cigar-sized, it’s cold. When they look like pencils, it’s freezing. Wear a hat. If the part of the plant closest to the sun is uncurling, make sure to dress in layers. The rhododendron fortells what the weather later in the day is going to be. You may be in pencil-leaf territory now, but later when that sun shines on everything it’ll be warm enough to unwrap yourself a little, just like the plant.

There are some darn big rhododendron at Hill-Stead. Their name doesn’t trip gently off the tongue, but if you know its derivation it helps keep the syllables in the right place. “Rhodo” comes from the Greek and means “rose”. “Dendron” means tree. Rose Tree=Rhododendron. If you look at the shrub with that in mind, you realize how much the flower actually resembles that of an old-fashioned rose.

The rhodies at Hill-Stead and in my yard too, are nursery- bought specimens, though the Hill-Stead plants are ages older than mine. Accordingly, Hill-Stead’s are quite large. There are a couple of beauties near the entrance to the Sunken Garden by the Carriage Porch, and several others around the the house. I haven’t noticed any native rhododendron on the trails, though there may be some wild ones further along on the connector to the Metacomet Trail.

To create what we now know as a rhododendron, Colonial Americans sent native plants from here back to England which were bred with Asian plants already being cultivated there. New England native plants came then as now in white and purple, but today the cultivar rhodie blooms in many lovely colors, the result of the pairing of the eastern and western types of plant.

I like looking out the window for a plant to advise me on how to dress for the day. I’m a sucker for homely virtues, I guess. It seems right to me that something earthy should spell out winter comfort. We are part of each other, united certainly in our need for protection from the cold. Comfort comes, after all, from an organic place within us. What comforts us most? A hand, a smile, a flicker in a loved one’s eye? Warm words in a cold world? All of the above no doubt, and each one as real as the curled leaf and bent branch of a plant seeking surcease from a long winter day.

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4 Responses to “Baby, it’s Cold Outside”

  1. Sue Sturtevant Says:

    Diane,
    Your last essay on rhododendron plants is spectacular. I loved the photographs and the last paragraph is philosophy at its best. I just signed up for new posts so I won’t miss a one. Thank you for taking the time to contemplate, reflect and write for all of us.

  2. Patsy Says:

    Very interesting. I love them, but they do not do well in KS.

  3. Bridget Willard Says:

    That’s a great post. I did not know about all of that!

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