Winter Solstice – A Time of Hope

stonehenge winter soltice
**Originally posted in December, 2011.

December 21st is the shortest day of the year. You probably are asking, “What do you mean the shortest day of the year? Aren’t there 24 hours in every day?” Absolutely, but allow me to be more specific. December 21st is the date in which there was less daylight hours than any other day in 2011. It is the time of the winter solstice – which in Central Standard Time will occur around 11:30 p.m. this year. The winter solstice usually occurs sometime between December 21 and December 23 every year in the Northern Hemisphere. It is the time of the year when the North Pole is tilted at its greatest distance, 23.5 degrees, away from the sun. The winter solstice also signifies the first day of winter. At the time of the autumnal equinox, September 23rd, daylight and dark were equal in length at 12 hours each. Since then, in the Northern Hemisphere, daylight has progressively decreased with each day. In fact, territories north of the Arctic Circle will experience 24 hours of darkness upon the winter solstice. It is important to mention this seasonal phenomenon is reverse for the Southern Hemisphere. For example, the territory south of the Antarctic Circle will experience 24 hours of daylight on December 21st. And, in the areas between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, the balance of daylight and dark hours remains stable and the weather warm and humid. (Thus the reason we must mimic the 12 hours of darkness for native tropical photoperiodic plants such as the Christmas Cactus and Poinsettia to force their blooms/bracts in our part of the world!)

If you’ve done any reading or research about ancient cultures, you are familiar with the fact they viewed the transitions between the seasons as very important. The solstices and equinoxes determined when crops should be planted and harvested, when berries and nuts became ripe and when certain game could be hunted. The winter solstice, in particular, marked the time ancient peoples were to begin preparing  and storing food and supplies, obtained from their autumn harvests and hunts, in anticipation of the next three months of cold weather. Ancient civilizations, such as the Aztecs, Druids, Egyptians, Greeks, Mayans, Phoenicians and Romans, among others, erected incredibly accurate temples, pyramids, monuments and calendars that assisted their villages in knowing when the seasonal changes were occurring. Stonehenge, in the photo above, is an example of such a structure. The photo below is of the Megalithic Passage Tomb at Newgrange in Ireland. It is a mounded tomb structure that is estimated to have been built in 3200 BC. There is a roof box over the entrance of the tomb which at sunrise during the winter solstice, a shaft of sunlight breaks through and illuminates the entire interior of the structure.


As with human rites of passage, celebrations and feasts were a major aspect of the ancient seasonal transitions as well, especially during the winter solstice. Fruit and nuts were plenty, beer and wine were fermented and animals thought not to survive through the winter were slaughtered. Food was in abundance at this time of year in the Northern Hemisphere and feasting was done in preparation for potentially 90 days of sparse sustenance. Festivities surrounding mid-winter holidays certainly continue in most cultures of the world today. In fact, Julius Caesar deemed December 25th the date of the winter solstice in early Roman times. And as most of you know, later on, the Christian church adopted this sacred date in honor of the birth of Christ.

In conclusion, you may ask why I have titled this post, Winter Solstice – A Time of Hope, when it apparently marks the time of anticipated harsh, cold weather.  As I pondered all the reasons, the scientific one came to mind first. Every day after December 21st brings more sunlight. The ancients knew if they prepared what food and supplies they could for the coming of winter and feasted on that which remained, each day they survived offered them more sunlight and eventual warmth. Hope simply helped them endure the season of long bitter nights and barren days. In today’s world, the winter solstice falls at the time of year (Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa) when most of us, no matter our religious persuasion, strive to mend relationships, are charitable to those in need, and reflect on our personal blessings. It is a time of faith and observance and thanksgiving. It is a time we come together to congratulate and to celebrate. It is a time we come together and mourn those no longer with us – yet we remain determined to continue the traditions that have become all the more meaningful in our loved ones’ absence. It is a time we deeply reflect upon our life and muster the determination to live better physically, emotionally and spiritually in the coming year.

christmas star

As a Christian, I believe the date of the Roman winter solstice was purposefully chosen to represent Christmas Day, as the spirit of Christmas signifies great hope for all mankind. No matter your faith or circumstances, I wish you the amazing experience of hope this winter season.

Until next time,

vincent on drums

This post is dedicated to my nephew, Vincent, who was born 13 years ago on the shortest day of the year!

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Autumn Flowers & Foliage of European Waterways

While this blog is not dedicated to travel, I’d like to share with you some of the beautiful fall flowers and foliage that I was fortunate to see on a recent European trip of a lifetime. My husband and I were guests on a Rhine river cruise with both pre and post excursions attached. We began our vacation in mid-October with a couple of days in Scotland. We then traveled to Amsterdam for a few days prior to starting our river cruise, which sailed through The Netherlands, Germany, France and finally disembarking in Switzerland. Staying four additional days in Switzerland, we arrived back in the US after three wonderful weeks abroad. It was a magical time filled with castles, cathedrals and culture – and plants!

In chronological order of our trip, below you will find photos of the horticultural beauties we enjoyed along the waterways of Europe.

Fuschia in Europe - St. Andrews, Scotland, along the North Sea
Fuschia in St. Andrews, Scotland along the North Sea.
Nerine Lily, St. Andrews, Scotland
Along the North Sea
Guernsey, or Nerine Lily, in St. Andrews, Scotland
Floral hanging basket.  Stirling, Scotland along the River Forth
Double Begonias and Forget-Me-Nots in Stirling, Scotland
near the River Forth.
Dandelions overlooking the cemetery at Stirling Castle, Scotland.
Pink Salvia in Amsterdam along a canal.
European Tulips in Amsterdam
Tulips for sale in Amsterdam
Herb Garden atop our Longship
Poppies and Yarrow in Kinderdijk, Netherlands near the River Noord.
Notice the windmills in the far background, top left
Tall Pink Dahlia in Kinderdijk
Yellow Rudbeckia in Kinderdijk
Fall foliage surrounding Marksburg Castle.
Braubach, Germany
Purple Thistle at Marksburg Castle, overlooking the Rhine valley.
Fall foliage along the path from Marksburg Castle,
overlooking the village of Braubach.
Sedum near Marksburg Castle in Braubach.
Bodiniers Beautyberry in Europe along the Rhine
Exquisite Bodiniers Beautyberry in Braubach.
Brown-eyed Susans in the background.
More very tall Dahlias in Braubach
Hotel Schonburg in Oberwesel, Germany
Castlehotel Schonburg and Vineyards in Oberwesel, Germany
Middle Rhine
Red Verbena Baskets in Rudesheim, Germany along the Rhine.
Geraniums and Bacopa in Rudesheim.
Plane Tree (far right) in the Marketplatz (City Center) of Rudesheim.
Bougainvillea in Speyer, Germany
Flowerbox House in Strasbourg, France along the River Ill
Swans on the Rhine, Breisach, Germany
Chinese Lanterns in Breisach, Germany along the Rhine.
Red and White Dahlia in Breisach
Pelargonium in afternoon sun along Lake Lucerne, Switzerland.
Pelargonium is a geranium relative.
Purple Cranesbill in Lucerne. Another geranium relative.
Alps and Fall Foliage at Alpnachstad, Switzerland
RIding the cog rail through fall trees at Alpnachstad up to
Mount Pilatus.
Flower and Garden Market in Basel.
Until Next Time –

October 2019

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The Beauty and Benefits of Dragonflies

Blue Dasher with background of Turk’s Cap

Dragonflies are beautiful flying insects of the Odonata order that have been on our planet for a very long time providing us visual beauty and indirect physical benefits. Fossils of large dragonflies with 30 inch wingspans have been found dating back millions of years and artistic depictions of these jeweled insects have been uncovered at many archaeological sites around the world. Some ancient cultures perceived the dragonfly as a symbol of transformation and hope, perhaps because these cultures were very attuned to nature and witnessed the larva leaving the water, shedding its shell and becoming a magnificent winged being. Today, many therapeutic and coaching businesses incorporate the dragonfly in their logo as a symbolic expression of their transformative services.

Female Green Darner Dragonfly

Not only are dragonflies desirable for the beauty and comforting symbolism they bring to our outdoor spaces, they are also desirable for their predatory skills, notably for catching those insects that “bug” us such as gnats, flies and mosquitoes! Dragonflies often capture their prey while in flight as they have the ability to fly in almost any direction and can hover in place for minutes. Of course, their eyesight is exquisite considering their entire head is made up of eyes that allow them to see at every angle except, perhaps, directly behind them.

According to an Oxford University published study of dragonflies in captivity, these hawk-like insects have close to a 95% capture success rate. It is believed they have the ability to anticipate the flight path of their prey and, with their agile maneuvers and keen eyesight, can intercept a moth or mosquito before it even senses danger is near.

Female Blue Dasher perched on a Parched Juniper
(Note she has no hint of blue except a small spot on her “nose”!)

The scientific order that dragonflies belong to, Odonata, translates in Greek as “toothed one” and signifies the strong jaws of these insects. Incidentally, it is not 100% known why these insects took on the name “dragon” fly, but likely it relates to myths and folklore of the middle ages coupled with a dragonfly’s predatory ferociousness. Oftentimes dragonflies will take on prey near their size, such as moths and, unfortunately, other dragonflies. And, when not pursuing insects for food, territorial male dragonflies are likely chasing insects of all sizes away from their chosen hovering/mating space.

Female Widow Skimmer

Interestingly, like most bird species, the female may be slightly duller in brilliance than the male dragonfly (see the photos of the Flame Skimmers below.) However, sometimes you’ll find the female is just as brilliant but of an entirely different color scheme (compare blue-eyed male and red-eyed female blue dashers above.) Speaking of the sexes, dragonflies can mate in flight and once done, the eggs are deposited in fresh waterways. There, the larva may live up to 2 years before they crawl out, shed and become transformed. Compared to its time spent in larval stage, a dragonfly’s days in flight may be quite numbered – some living for only a week to some species living for almost a year. Due to this short period of adulthood, another mantra attributed to the dragonfly is “live for today”.

Shimmering and colorful dragonflies can be found on every continent of earth with the exception of Antarctica. Most prefer lower altitudes and warmer climates but on the contrary, some species are found in the high altitudes of the Rocky Mountains and in the cold climate of Iceland, possibly riding in on warm wind currents as some dragonflies are known to migrate. If any nature lovers would like to see these dragonflies in Iceland, they could always consider visiting and traveling to spot as many dragonflies as possible. Dragonfly enthusiasts could always visit to rent a campervan and learn about the best time of year to visit the infamously cold area. Hopefully, there will be multiple dragonflies for you to see. Although they aren’t native to Iceland, many people have spotted them whilst they’ve been traveling.

Personally, I can attest the summer of 2019 in Texas has been exceptionally abundant with dragonflies (and damselflies – a different “suborder” of flying insects that are slimmer and hold their wings parallel to their bodies). I am fortunate to have seen many varieties this year in my own suburban backyard. In addition to those depicted in this post, just yesterday for the first time I saw a bright green female Eastern Pondhawk on my wrought iron arbor, but it would not pose still for me as did the others.

Until next time, may you, too, enjoy the beauty and benefits of these flying wonders in your part of the world.


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African Iris – Pretty in Bloom and Lovely when Not

My husband and I finally found a hardy plant for our large centerpiece terracotta pot that is both beautiful in bloom and also when not – African Iris. We live in Hardiness Zone 8a which means our temps can dip down into the teens in the winter, although this doesn’t happen often. Zone 8a is likely the northernmost zone African Iris, or Dietes, can grow as a perennial. In fact, we are fortunate our particular plant is doing so well since it is situated in a pot. I have found most plants fare much better when, on the cusp of their hardiness zone, they are placed in ground versus in a planter. However, I inherited a large number of planters when I married, so I am content to fill them! And, I am ecstatic to fill them with an evergreen perennials that withstand icy cold nights as well as 100 degree summer days!

As the title of this post mentions, African Iris is an attractive plant when in bloom and when not. It is sometimes called a Fortnight Lily because the plant will flower consecutively for a couple of weeks and then rest a couple of weeks before another stalk of blooms forms. If you look closely at the picture above, you’ll see pods from spent blooms on the same stalk with the flower that is blooming.

Blooms of the African Iris are small (about 3 inches), dainty and ornate. Depending on the variety, orange, yellow, blue or a combination of these accent colors, will form against crisp white petals. I believe my African Iris pictured in this post is of the “Orange Drop” variety as it is completely devoid of blue. If you look up African Iris, or Dietes, you’ll see some varieties have a bit more color to their flowers than mine.

Although its individual blooms are open for only a day or two, the African Iris has a very long blooming period in north Texas. It will flower off and on from late spring to early fall in north Texas and will bloom more abundantly if placed in a sunny location. The stalks of the plant can grow 3 – 4 feet tall with an even larger spread, so be sure to plan for room for growth and good air circulation. African Iris grows from rhizomes, and like most plants of this type, it should be divided if crowding occurs. In addition to enjoying full to part shade, the plant likes well-drained soil and is quite drought tolerant once established. Some people enjoy planting their African Irises near water features and this is perfectly fine as long as the plants do not sit in water. Root rot can occur if drainage isn’t good but other than that, the plant is relatively disease and pest free.

I actually consider the small blooms of the African Iris a bonus because it is the plant’s foliage that truly serves my landscape well. The long, green, sword-like blades are reminiscent of fanning ornamental grass. Other than discontinuing to bloom, the plant stays in very good form throughout the cold months, providing for a pop of greenery in a typically barren, winter garden space.

If you happen to live in colder climates than Zone 8a, you can certainly enjoy African Iris as well. You may wish to plant it in pots that are small enough to move indoors during the winter or plant outdoors and cover, along with other tenders, when a hard freeze is predicted. I’ve also read where a person can go to the trouble of digging up the rhizomes in the fall, bringing them inside and replanting them when the soil warms in the spring. If, like me, you reside on the cusp of their hardy zone, you may chose to keep the plant outside and strive to protect it during hard freezes, knowing that you may have to clip a few brown freeze-burned blades come spring.

Speaking of clipping blades, it is fine to “cut back” African Irises in early spring. This is not necessary, but can provide for a fresh look if, after a couple of years, you are seeing a few bent, brown or yellow blades here and there. I sort of look at this as similar to tidying up Liriope ( ) and other perennial lily turf “grasses”.

African Iris highlighted by the Sun after Rainshower
African Iris highlighted by the Sun after a Rain Shower

In closing, I hope when looking around garden centers and nurseries this spring that you come across this not-so-common plant and give it a try. I think you will grow fond of it’s ease and simplictic beauty.

Until next time,


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Owl Pellet

Last weekend was a time for raptors at my suburban north Texas home. 

First of all, I unintentionally attracted a Cooper’s Hawk to my fence on Saturday.  I had refilled my bird feeder with fresh seed that morning.  Although I have my bird feeder situated in a rather protected area between my house and my neighbor’s, of course, hawks have incredible eyesight so the little sparrows, warblers and juncos fluttering about that morning definitely lured the predator in.  Fortunately, the hawk left without a meal from my feeder.

Cooper’s Hawk

Later that evening, as my husband and I returned home from a family visit, we noticed a spherical ball of fur lying on the stonework in our front yard.  Granted, we have problems with mice from time to time as do most of us in the north Texas area, so at first glance, I thought the ball of fur was a curled up, deceased mouse.  Upon closer inspection, it became apparent the egg-shaped item was an owl pellet.  I had heard of these pellets before but I had never come across one personally. **Before you read on, do not do so at the dinner table . . . save this post for a time you are not eating!

Owl Pellet

Pellets are the regurgitated, indigestible portions of a predatory bird’s diet.  Hawks, eagles, falcons, owls and some smaller birds create pellets.  The reason for this phenomenon is much more complicated than I can fully explain here, but what I understand is this: 

Raptors typically swallow their prey whole or in large pieces. Unlike most birds, these birds of prey do not have a storage place or “crop” in their digestive system that allows for the slow and complete digestion of fur, bones, feathers, shells, etc. Thus, the indigestible parts of mice, small birds, reptiles and insects must be expelled by the raptor to make room for it to comfortably eat again.  These indigestible items meld together to form what is called a pellet. Pellets are typically expelled 6 – 10 hours after a raptor has eaten prey. It’s not a pleasant thought, but I sort of envision this process as the same as a cat coughing up a hairball.

The size of the pellet I found in my yard was bigger than a large hen egg.  Because of its size, I’m quite certain it originated from an owl – probably one of the larger species found in our area such as the Great Horned Owl, Barn Owl or Barred Owl.  I’ve indeed heard the soothing sound of a Great Horned Owl once or twice in the night over the past few months, and, I’ve noticed we do not seem to have evidence of as many rodent visitors to our sun room as we’ve had in the recent past. I suspect the owl is getting its fill!

Bones Entangled in Fur of Owl Pellet
Another Close Up of the Owl Pellet

In fact, I’m sure the pellet I found last weekend was comprised of a mouse. I had posted about my find on social media and learned that oftentimes elementary school children dissect owl pellets in science class these days. As my curiosity grew, I decided to retrieve the pellet from my yard and dissect it. It had been raining when I found it so I had left it on the stone outdoors.

The pellet was much harder to dissect than I expected. The hair was tangled, matted and wrapped very tightly around some of the small bones. The hair was wound so tightly that I finally lost patience in trying to untangle it. I ended up carefully cutting the hair with scissors and slowly pulling the item apart.

I found a couple of jaw bones with teeth intact and what I believe to be a portions of a tiny skull. There were many other small bones that I couldn’t quite identify. After comparing my pellet picture with those I found online, as unbelievable as it is, I think the very curved bone in the bottom right of my pic below is an overgrown mouse incisor! The tooth is much larger than I would’ve ever thought for such a small mammal. I understand dissecting an owl pellet can be considered morbid but for me it was an extremely fascinating and educational activity.

Dissected Owl Pellet
skull portions-center; jawbone with small teeth-lower center; overgrown, curved incisor-bottom right

I’m probably a rare individual in that although I am very aware of their unsavory habits, mice and rats do not scare or disgust me. This doesn’t mean I welcome them into my home! In fact, I’m grateful for the natural predators in my suburban neighborhood that keep them in check. I suppose my statement earlier about it being fortunate the Cooper’s Hawk did not capture the warbler may be a little biased in the world of predator vs prey, especially when I am always rooting for the owl to catch the mouse.

However, rest assured, nature does not discriminate.

Until next time,

February 19, 2019

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February Observations

Robins & Such

American Robin

Like most gardeners, by February I am longing for early signs of spring. Fortunately, in north Texas, we are able to enjoy spring-like weather, and sometimes even summer-like weather, now and then throughout our winter months. While this is a blessing it can also be a curse for those of us that get adventurous and plant items that may not be able to survive an unexpected late frost. (Note: The average date of the last frost in north Texas is around March 15.)

On two consecutive sunny February mornings recently, I saw several flocks of robins in my neighborhood. While seeing a robin is often thought to be an early sign of spring, in actuality, these plump, red-breasted birds are present in north Texas year ’round. However, we may indeed see more of them around this time of year because those that migrated from Canada to the warmer climate of Texas have joined those that live permanently here. In addition, those that migrated further south into Mexico are stopping by Texas on their way back north to their preferred breeding area. (Apparently, the permanent resident-Texan robins are content to breed here!)

Robins are well-known for eating worms. They are the early bird in the adage, the early bird gets the worm. However, robins eat a variety of insects in addition to worms – as do most birds of the thrush family. Perhaps these eating habits are the reason we associate robins with impending spring. We are accustomed to seeing them search for worms & insects in the ground – worms and insects that are much more abundant as our soil begins to warm.

American Robin
American Robin

While it is true a robin’s diet is primarily made up of invertebrates, when the weather is cold and worms and insects are scarce, a robin will consume winter fruit and berries. Oftentimes, they travel in large flocks from one fruit-bearing tree to another. I have to admit, I was a little surprised to learn about this herbivorous aspect of a robin’s diet.

All along, I thought it was solely cedar waxwings that perched in our trees during the winter, consuming berries and tender buds. It wasn’t until I witnessed dozens of robins in our pear and elm trees this past week that I realized the waxwings had competitors. Most of the robins atop appeared full and satisfied with their winter vegetarian cuisine and stayed roosted. However, a few of them flew down and attempted to find an errant bug or two in the cold mulch.

American Elm Budding Out
American Elm Budding Out Against Drab February Day

As an aside, I read that having a flock of robins in your trees doesn’t mean they are only eating fruit and berries. They could be performing a bit of needed pest control on your behalf. Using their keen eyesight typically reserved for spying worms, robins are easily able to find hibernating insects in tree bark and rolled leaves.

While a robin’s diet is quite varied, they are rarely seen perched at bird feeders that are strictly filled with seed. If you’d like to attract them to a feeder you should purchase a fruit mix or add a little fruit of your own to the seed. And, in addition to planting berry-bearing shrubs, another sure way to attract robins to your yard is to install a bird bath. In my experience, robins are not shy about using a bird bath with their seed-loving cousins and, of course, fresh water is a year round requirement!

To sum up, I suppose the more accurate “spring is coming” sign for north Texans is: When you see robins transition from tree feeding to ground feeding you can reasonably expect the earth is warming and spring is approaching.

I wasn’t planning on focusing this post on robins, but as I write usually one subject comes to the forefront. I would like to conclude that while walking my dog this weekend I witnessed a couple of other signs of impending spring in my area. A bright yellow forsythia had begun to bloom and a single red flower was peeking through a heavily mulched ice plant. I also noticed the garlic chives had sprouted in my herb garden.

Forsythia Blooming in February in Texas
Garlic Chives
Early Garlic Chives

Although a bitter cold front is on its way to north Texas as I complete this post tonight, I’m still assured spring weather is indeed on its way. In the meantime, I’ll be keeping an eye on how many robins I begin to see . . . on the ground!

Until next time,


Robin Seeking Insects in Mulch

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