Jim McGuire: Merry, magnificent may


The flowery May, who

from her green lap throws

The yellow cowslip

and the pale primrose.

—John Milton, “On May Morning”

“All the world is glad with May,” wrote naturalist John Burroughs. A few lines later he proclaimed May the “joy-month” of the year.

Who would disagree?

May is indeed the merriest month of the year. The month when birds sing their loudest, when country brooks burble with high-spirited gaiety, when wildflowers dapple fields and forests in festive dress.

The sun shines warm in May. The air is sweet. And even a cloudy morning or a rainy afternoon cannot darken the mood or dampen your enjoyment.

From poets to fishermen, gardeners to bird-watchers, May in its entirety is beloved by one and all.

May is when April’s vernal promise becomes manifest. Spring’s definitive reign. And it’s doubtless this marvelous seasonal magnificence Wordsworth was getting at when he wrote of the “sovereignty of May.”

“May brings the flowers to bloom, it brings the green leaves to the trees,” observed Paul Lawrence Dunbar.

In a matter of days, local woodlands will turn from mostly open, with the only the merest hint of emerging leaves to relieve the skeletal starkness of exposed limbs and trunks, to a cloistered retreat where a verdant canopy hides the sky—each tree and bush hastily decking out in a lush green cloak. And if you believe that leaf green is a monotone, one-size-fits-all shade, a walk in any May woods will quickly convince you otherwise.

The greens of May’s new leaves are more like an entire palette—the shades as variegated as the plants themselves. In May, “green” can mean anything from mossy to mint, olive to verdigris, deep emerald to bright chartreuse, plus a thousand shades in-between.

It was, I suspect, this dense and exploding greenness which long ago prompted an anonymous Scottish bard to characterize May as “lusty,” meaning full of vigor and vitality, robust.

May is indeed vigorous and robust. And why not? Dawns come early, and dusk doesn’t get around until just before bedtime. In fact, you’d have to look all the way back to last August to match the length of today’s fourteen-plus hours of daylight.

There’s therefore a wealth of sunlight to add to the mild temperatures and abundant moisture—all of which combines to help create the ideal growing season. Which also explains why your lawn currently needs mowing twice a week.

A couple of years ago, I spoke with an old cowboy (the genuine article, mind you) who was visiting Ohio during May from his ranch in the parched rangeland of California.

“I am purely astonished by all your lovely grass,” he said, unable to keep the wonderment from his voice. “Plumb makes me want to get down on my hands and knees and bury my face in it, maybe chomp a mouthful or two.”

At the time, I’d been fighting a two-week battle with a large lawn and a recalcitrant mower. The grass was winning. I said if I could find my scythe, I’d gladly bag a couple hundred bushels of clippings which he could haul home in his pickup.

In the old days, the various Algonquin tribes knew May as the time of the Flower Moon.

How appropriate! While the earliest of spring’s ephemerals have already passed or are now fading fast, an even great number of what I consider “mid-spring bloomers” are filling the wildlands and roadsides with color.

One of my favorites is Ohio Spiderwort, a neat plant of wet meadows with eye-catching bright bluish-purple flowers, whose old-fashioned and possibly off-putting name belies their beauty.

In the same marsh where I regularly find spiderworts grows another lovely native plant, Miami Mist. These small flowers are white in their center, blue to pinkish-magenta along their outer edge, with delicately fringed lobes.

For pure dazzle, Fire Pinks are hard to beat. Look for these small plants with their fiery red flowers in rich woods.

A naturalized plant whose cheery yellow blooms I often see along bass creeks, sometimes in mats so thick they’ve formed a golden carpet, is Moneywort.

And finally, saving the best for last, are the rare and iconic Lady’s Slippers, pink or yellow. You know you’ve had a good wildflowering day when you come across even a few examples of either one.

Of course wildflowers aren’t the only flowering plants of May. Trees, too, bloom this month—especially the luscious-scented wild apples.

“There’s perfume upon every wind,” wrote poet Nathaniel Parker Willis.

Honeysuckle, wild apple, service berry, and locust are only a few of a dozen or more which daily add their honeyed fragrances to the rich May air.

A more common contributor to this heady mix, though no less appreciated for being widespread, are the violets.

Could we ever separate May from its many violets?

True, various violets have already been blooming for a month. But that’s beside the point. May and violets go together so aptly that they’re practically synonymous.

The other evening I sat on a farmhouse porch, watching the first bright stars of evening appear, as if someone were poking holes in the still-blue firmament. A catbird was mewing in the hedge, while a cheery robin sitting in the top of a big maple swung jauntily through his vespers.

The cooling air was lush with perfume from the many violets which have spread across the yard—their scent both restful and invigorating, the very essence of May’s nature.

I sighed with contentment.

May is a month-long treasure. Merry, magnificent…magic.

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