Friday, February 29, 2008

The Red of Spring

Red has always been the color of spring to me, particularly March.

In Bulgaria, on March 1st, people tie red and white tassels called Martenitzas around the wrists of loved ones, also cars, house doors, trees, and young animals. These tassels are protection amulets that are worn until the first stork returns, signaling the beginning of spring.

In Eastern European countries, scarlet eggs were symbols of resurrection and were placed on or buried in the graves of the family dead. A Romanian tale says that eggs are dyed red to represent the blood of Christ. But the Chinese used to exchange scarlet eggs at their Spring Festival in 900 BCE, so it is more likely the red color is the symbol of life.

The month of March is named after the Roman god, Mars, also the name of the Red Planet. Before he was the god of war, Mars was the god of fertility and vegetation. And the new growth of spring is often red.

In the days when I drove up to Clear Lake once a week to visit my mentor and friend, Helen Faris, I always loved that time during the year when the woods on either side of the highway took on a rosy flush, an almost imperceptible halo of color, slowly replaced in the weeks that followed with green.

In my neighborhood the change is a little less obvious since the trees aren't assembled en masse. I often stop to gawk at individual trees and shrubs on my walk to work, convinced they've changed but unable to say exactly how. The first inklings of spring are invisible yet apparent.

As spring rolls on and the leaves unfurl, the shift to spring becomes visible. The twigs of trees flush red at the tips. Right now, the leaves unfurling on the rose bushes are as red as the roses will be later. The new leaves of the hebe (to the left) are dark red, almost violet.

And, of course, who can miss the magic of the ubiquitous photinia, a popular shrub all over Seattle because of this--it's one trick--the bright red of the new leaves which slowly deepen to a darker, rubbery green.

Thanks to a letter posted at my favorite phenology site, Journey North, I now understand why. Anthocyanins. Those pigments that are so good for you, which are found in the skins of grapes and blueberries, are present in the cells of plants, creating the red color which acts as a sort of sunscreen protecting the plant from too much sunlight. As the plant develops, it is able to absorb the sunlight and convert it to chlorophyll, the green pigment, which overshadows the red., which won't be seen again until fall when the leaves of trees die and stop producing chlorophyll and the anthocyanins flame out in their fall colors.

The Journey North web site suggested an experiment which I carried out. I poured some purple grape juice into three cups, filled with bleach, water and white vinegar respectively. The purple color of the grape juice completely disappeared in the bleach, while it intensified in color in the vinegar and became diluted in the water. Don't know what that's supposed to prove but it was fun.

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