Saturday, January 28, 2017

Daylength in Winter

After two weeks of cloud cover, the sun finally came out for a few hours this week. The heavy, dense gray skies have made the transition from day to night almost imperceptible, and at a time when most of us want to start seeing longer days. With the cloud cover, I wake up and go to work in the dark at 7am and I leave my office in the dark at 5pm. With the clearing skies, I have a hint of twilight until 5:30, the light of 6:30pm in October, but certainly better than the gray days when no light avails itself. The days are officially growing longer which is not only good for circadian rhythms, but for the promise of spring.

While visiting a bottomland woodland this week along a nice, high quality stream, I saw my first-of-spring Harbinger of Spring, not in flower, but up with full greenery, thousands of plants. Riverbank bottomlands are often the places to go to see the earliest of the blooming spring wildflowers such as Spring Beauty and Trout Lilies. I only saw the plant in green, no other wildflower sprouts, and it seems a bit early even for this one. We're in the time of year for blooming Witch Hazel along streambanks; it may be too late in January for me to catch the state champion in bloom in the St. Francois Mountains or the thick stands of it along streams in the White River Hills. This stunning flowering shrub that peaks in January and February is always a delight to see, a promise of re-greening of the world, and a must-see plant if you've never seen it with its delicate little wavering petals. Instead of spring wildflower hiking, this was a week of fireline flagging, casual winter botany, and managing this horrendous cold that seems to be going around. We all share this cold! Camaraderie! I'm on the tail end of it after four days away from the gym, two days away from the office, and now it's spread throughout my household and to my colleagues.

Meanwhile, with the break in cloud cover and drying winds, the Ozarks are being prepped for a busy week of prescribed fire events. Two weeks ago while flagging lines, someone reported to me that there might be a wildfire while we had these wet, punky, sopping leaves. There was a local landowner trying to burn leaves in ditches but they wouldn't burn (with 80% rh, and fuel moistures past the rate of extinction, the leaves in ditches wouldn't burn but they sure did produce a lot of smoke). I was just flagging. The cloud cover moved back in this afternoon but no moisture is expected early next week and there are surely a lot of folks gearing up for some old-fashioned winter prescribed fires in the uplands. In the period of super short daylengths between December 15 and January 15, one would be hard pressed to even burn off a 20 acre area. But now, with the longer daylengths and dry conditions, we may be able to burn 100, 200 and more acres before the sun sets and shuts down the fires.

With spring occurring at least two weeks earlier than it did thirty years ago (and phenology records to prove it), the fire window is much smaller; the growing season persists into November and begins earlier. Considering I saw Harbinger of Spring up in the river hills near the Meramec River last week, our window for the uplands may even be smaller yet. Raising a cup of green tea with Throat Coat's slippery elm for a good week of prescribed fire next week. Climate change has impacted our prescribed fire season beyond belief, and if we don't take every advantage possible, we may lose the very systems upon which biodiversity depends. The short days of deep winter won't allow for good fire, the highly variable weather of late March is too dangerous from not only a collateral damage standpoint but from a prescription side. The window is narrowing every year to burn our fire-mediated landscapes.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Norton Month!

We're setting out on a snowy January morning to the rolling hills of New Haven and Hermann, Missouri in search of Norton. It is perfectly appropriate that January is designated as Norton Month by the Missouri Wine and Grape Board, considering the big, bold flavor profile of this, my favorite Missouri varietal. While every month for me is a Norton-drinking month, I'll work at incorporating more Norton collecting this January in honor of the designation.

The Norton grape was discovered in Richmond, Virginia as early as 1817 by Dr. Daniel N. Norton. Dr. Norton was a physician by trade, but tinkered in horticulture at a time when Americans were enjoying the hobby of developing new hybrids of shrubs and vines. Norton may have spent much of the 1820s propagating the Vitis aestivalis hybrid vine with difficulty, but by 1830, Norton's Virginia Seedling was available for sale in catalogs. The story of the discovery and history of Norton is best recounted through Todd Kliman's fantastic book, The Wild Vine, available at most public libraries in Missouri. Kliman spent significant time in Missouri developing this fun book; the sections on Hermann are particularly fascinating, a synthesis of great research through the State Historical Society and the treasure trove of Hermann's history museums and library. Because it's been so long since I've been to New Haven, I can't remember if the wineries there sell Norton or the controversial Cynthiana.

Several years ago, my friends the Norton Wine Travelers sent me prints from U.P. Hedrick's Grapes of New York (1908), one of a Norton cluster and the other of Cynthiana. For many years, well into the 1990s, it was determined by winemakers and horticulturists alike that these are two distinct grapes. According to Hedrick, "the botanical differences of the two varieties are not greater than might be attributed to environment, soil, climate and culture; but side by side the two grapes ripen at different times, and the quality of the fruit, and more particularly of the wine, is such that the varieties must be considered distinct. The distinction should be maintained, for Cynthiana is the better grape of the two." This age-old distinction between Cynthiana and Norton was tested in the 1990s at the State Fruit Experiment Station at what is now Missouri State University and again with genetics at Cornell University. It was determined through isozyme analysis and genetic testing that the two are the same. However, the debate stands. Gourmet magazine columnist Gerald Asher writes that "either the two were always one (as the Missouri and Cornell studies indicate) or, if different, then all present plantings, under whichever name...must have been propagated from one version of the two."

Regardless, both varieties have our Missouri native grape in the genetic stock, which makes Norton a wonderful addition to Missouri's agricultural landscape. The berries are small, and dark, and it takes a lot of grape clusters to make a batch of Norton wine, one reason Nortons and Norton dessert wines are often the most expensive wines at Missouri wineries. I wish I could say they were all worth it, but you'll have to find the ones you like on your own. Among my favorites are made in New Haven at Robller Winery. I'm pleased to learn that so many Missouri wineries are open on random Mondays in January. Winter blues? Nothing a trip to a Norton producer can't fix!