What is Phenology?


Pussy Willow, March 2015

Everyone knows the saying about March – “In like a lion, out like a lamb”. And then there’s the other saying which is very common here: “Christmas in clover, Easter in snow”…

These are some of the ancient proverbs passed down through generations, sometimes over hundreds of years, that show us the link between seasons and climate. They may have shifted slightly over the centuries, or have moved due to changes in our calendar (or indeed climate), and some may no longer ring true, but they can be as precise as any long-term weather forecast.

But what is Phenology?

“Phenology is the study of the times of recurring natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate.”

(Source: naturescalendar.org.uk)


“Oak before ash, we shall have a splash

Ash before oak, we shall have a soak”


Phenology is much more than a few proverbs or rhyming weather predictions; observing nature in the form of weather patterns or plant and animal behaviour provides surprisingly accurate information on when to sow, plant, transplant or even prune. According to phenological observations the flowering of the Forsythia for example is an indication that the ground has warmed up enough to plant peas.


Another example of this is that potatoes can go in the ground as soon as the first dandelions have opened.

ScillaThe first pollen, the first flight of bees and butterflies, the emergence of leaves on the trees, or the first appearance of migratory birds can vary by weeks each year, and can thus give a far more precise insight into the conditions prevailing than the normal calendar. For vegetable growers the phenological calendar provides helpful insights – such as not to sow your beans until the lilac is in full bloom – but it is of interest to me for estimating when annuals can be sown or planted out, when the spring tidy-up is due, or if bulbs can still be planted in autumn.

Every gardener can benefit from closely observing nature and interpreting its signals – not only for better results, but simply for pleasure too. Watching out for butterflies and bees or the first snowdrop are things many of us do already.

A bit of history

In 8th century Japan the emperor’s experts in Kyoto began recording the beginning of the cherry blossom season; the flowering of the cherry was considered an important symbol of the reawakening, fragility and transience of all life and is today still celebrated with extravagant ceremonies and festivals.


Shukkei-en Garden, Hiroshima, 1993



However, it was not until  the 18th century that a European began to take down similar records; Robert Marsham, a wealthy landowner from Norfolk, began to catalogue consistently first flowering dates (such as snowdrops), insect activity,  seasonal weather and temperature changes, tree foliation, crop growth, and the first sightings of butterflies and migrating birds. (His family continued this tradition until the mid 20th century.) In the meantime Carl von Linné, the Swedish botanist, had started a network in Sweden with 18 stations and a German institute in Mannheim began an international project. By the late 19th century Germany was  keeping consistent records with a researcher called Hermann Hoffmann calling for Europe-wide data to be brought together in one databank.


The world wars in the first half of the 20th century ensured that phenology did not lose importance, since feeding the nation had become a matter of survival and any phenological guidelines considered helpful for growing crops were given priority. This trend continued after the war, when food was still scarce and agriculture was trying to catch up. But with the onset of new production methods and chemicals in agriculture the records were gradually phased out in the 1960s and were only revived in the 1990s when talk of global climate change emerged: Canada, the UK and the USA were some of the first states to revive their phenological observation networks at this time.


Today phenological observations are not only of interest to agriculture however… the tourist industry is keen to be able to predict, for example, the famous cherry and apple blossom season in Hamburg, and hayfever sufferers can benefit from knowing when certain pollen is likely to be in the air.


In Bavaria over 250 volunteers (1,200 nationwide) collect data for the German Meteorological Service (Deutscher Wetterdienst), which recognizes not just four seasons, but TEN, beginning with the production of the hazel flowers and ending with the dropping of the larch needles. I will post about each of these ten phenological seasons tomorrow, so I hope you’ll stop by to take a look.

Do you use old proverbs to help you in the garden?

Interesting links:

The USA National Phenology Network

ATTRA National Sustainable Agriculture Informaton Service (USA)

Nature’s Calendar (UK – Woodland Trust)

Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UK)


“Winter is gone…”?

Today, the 2nd of February, is Candlemas, Maria Lichtmess, or as many American friends will know, Groundhog Day!

If Candlemas Day is clear and bright, winter will have another bite. If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain, winter is gone and will not come again.

Ist’s an Lichtmess hell und rein,
wird ein langer Winter sein.
Wenn es aber stürmt und schneit,
ist der Frühling nicht mehr weit.

Well, the weather proverbs always have some truth in them, and I have been convinced all winter that it would not get really cold this year. Today it is cloudy and rain/sleet is forecast for later… So now I am officially declaring the demise of winter! 😀 It may take a while for my snowdrops to open yet, and the Hellebore buds are still tightly shut, but I am sure it won’t be long until I can see pictures like this…


and this…


I just need to be patient…


How is winter progressing in your part of the world? Any signs of it coming to an end?

Josefi (Seasonal Celebrations)

This coming Tuesday, March 19th, is St Joseph’s Day; for many in Bavaria this means spring has arrived! Therefore I’m tying this post in to Donna’s “Seasonal Celebrations” meme at Gardens Eye View.



Unless you live in one of the larger cities in Bavaria, such as Munich or Nuremberg, or even Regensburg, life is still very closely linked to the land, and the passing of seasons. The Catholic Church also plays a large role in rural Bavaria and thus a date that many of the older generation here in Bavaria remember well is Josefi, St Joseph’s Day, on 19th March. This day, considered to be the end of winter, used to be a holiday in Bavaria (until 1968), and several country proverbs revolve around it….

(I’ve translated them roughly into English here)

Ist’s Joseph klar, gibt’s ein gutes Honigjahr

If St Joseph’s Day is clear, it will be a fruitful year

Wenns erst einmal Josefi ist, so endet auch der Winter gewiss.

Only when Josefi’s passed, is the winter gone at last

The temperature will also often have risen by this date – with rain instead of snow – and, as another saying goes, only the laziest farmers will not be out in the fields!

The first spring flowers wake up around now. First the Liverwort…


Hepatica nobilis (16th March), in the woods nearby

And then the Pasque flowers…


Pulsatilla vulgaris (16th March), on the chalky slopes overlooking our valley

Traditionally the Scillas (Alpine squill/Scilla bifolia) – a protected species – will be flowering in the woods; my German “Oma” used to call them Josefiblümerl (although this name is now often given to Hepaticas as well). They grow wild in Germany, as far north as the Danube and even near the Rhine, and are a pretty sight – although I haven’t seen any for a few years. But I do have the cultivated variety seen commonly in gardens here…

Scilla siberica

Scilla siberica (woodland squill), growing in my garden

A few markets or the first festivals of the year take place around St Joseph’s Day. Also, since Joseph is the patron saint of carpenters, in some regions in the south of Bavaria a special bread with raisins in it is baked in honour of those working with wood. A special beer may be brewed in some towns for this date, and beer gardens might  open if the weather permits!

Well, it may not be beer garden weather yet, despite a few very warm days in early March, but I’m certain spring has finally arrived once again – and am grateful for every single bloom it brings!

Golden Crocus


Candlemas (Lichtmess in German) is a day with many sayings attached to it. In Bavaria the farming year begins, the Christmas decorations come down, and forecasts for the coming season are made….

“If Candlemas Day is clear and bright, winter will have another bite. If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain, winter is gone and will not come again.”

Ist’s an Lichtmess hell und rein,
wird ein langer Winter sein.
Wenn es aber stürmt und schneit,
ist der Frühling nicht mehr weit.

Groundhog Day, famous in Pennsylvania for forecasting the onset of spring, was taken across the Atlantic by German immigrants.

Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day (Wikimedia Commons)

The original animal was a badger, and the saying was:

Wenn an Lichtmess der Dachs seinen Schatten sieht, geht er noch einmal für sechs Wochen in seinen Bau.  

If the badger sees his shadow on Candlemas Day, he will return to his burrow for another six weeks.

(Apparently this is one of the most reliable weather proverbs!)

I somehow think Phil would not see his shadow here today… our snow melted within 24 hours on Wednesday, and since then we’ve had cloud, strong winds and rain. So hopefully “winter is gone and will not come again”!

What’s the weather like in your part of the world? If the sun is shining, beware – winter may yet return!

The Bright (Blue) Side of Life

When we look up from our garden to the woods, in a northerly direction, we observe a strange phenomenon… the sky is bluer than anywhere else. This was about a week ago…


Whatever the weather, there is so often a patch of blue up there!


There is a German saying “aus heiterem Himmel” (out of the clear sky), meaning out of nowhere, suddenly, “out of the blue“. But the word “heiter” usually means cheerful, or light-hearted.

I also like the expression “pie in the sky“, but then I’m obsessed with food… 😉

Other expressions regarding the sky:

The sky’s the limit

Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight; Red sky at morning, shepherd’s warning

Reach for the sky


Can you think of any more?


Going to Seed

“The love of gardening is a seed that once sown never dies.”

Gertrude Jekyll


Many of my garden flowers are now over, and producing wonderful seedheads in various shapes and patterns. Let’s take a closer look at some of them!

The Physalis alkekengi  (Lampionblume) seed capsules have started turning orange already and lend an autumny feel to the garden. They are related to the Cape Gooseberry, but are not edible and are extremely hardy (and invasive!)…

Nigella damascena – beautiful seed pods, and edible seeds…

Rosehips glisten and remind me that the summer is drawing to an end…

Day Lily seed pods still looking so fresh and green…

Cranesbill, (Storchschnabel) with its beautiful curves…

Clematis – almost as beautiful as the flowers themselves, these hair-like seedheads are a pretty garden ornament


All the flowers of tomorrow are in the seeds of today


Don’t stop sowing just because the birds ate a few seeds.

(Danish Proverb)



Today is Johannistag – St. John’s Day

St John’s Wort – Johanniskraut

Not only was this once considered to be the date of the summer equinox, it is also the last day for harvesting your rhubarb and asparagus! And it is also the latest date for making hay – still adhered to in the nature reserves here, thus allowing wild flowers and grasses to go to seed. The equinox is actually a few days earlier, on June 21st, but old traditions die hard…

Alpine Meadow 2010

In Bavaria,  24thJune is an important date for forecasting the weather and thus planning the harvesting season… yes, even today it can be fairly accurate! There are many sayings connected with Johannistag. Here are a few I have rewritten in English in order to make them rhyme!

  • When the glow worms start to glow, it is time to go and mow! (Wenn die Johanniswürmer glänzen, darfst Du richten Deine Sensen)
  • Before St John’s Day pray for rain, after it will spoil the grain. (Vor Johanni bitt’ um Regen, nachher kommt er ungelegen)
  • Cherries red, asparagus dead! (Kirschen rot, Spargel tot!)

The word Johannis is heard often in different contexts in June:

Johanniskraut, St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum), is named after this saint since it usually flowers on or around St John’s Day, and is harvested then.

Redcurrants are called Johannisbeeren in German, as they ripen around this date.

Glow worms are also known as Johannis bugs, as they typically appear towards the end of June.

It is time to cut your beech hedges, as they send out new shoots at this time of year; the Johannis shoots!

And the Johannis herbs – herbs used for herbal remedies -are harvested at this time, such as chamomile, moon daisies, cornflowers, burdock, wolf’s bane, larkspur, wild poppies, thyme, mugwort, verbena, calendula, verbascum, and of course St John’s Wort. A small wreath is traditionally made with nine herbs, and displayed on the door as protection against sickness and evil.

Alchemilla mollis, Lady’s Mantle… a herbal remedy for women in particular:

Leucanthemum vulgare, Moon daisy… a healing herb dedicated to St John:

In the south of Germany the night of June 23rd-24th is celebrated with ancient customs. Across the countryside you can see beacons lit on hills – the Johannis fire – as a pagan symbol for the sun at the summer solstice, later being changed by the Catholic Church into a symbol of light and hence Christ.

In some communities there may be a dance, or other festival, and re-enacted rituals involving herbs, especially St John’s Wort.

Are there any special traditions for Midsummer where you live?