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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Blackberry Winter

Snow in New England, temperatures in Marietta below freezing on May 16? Huh? That's the way it goes with weather. On that day we were in Hilton Head for a few days enjoying 80s and sunny weather. I stared in disbelief at an email weather alert. It was a freeze warning - overnight lows in the upper 20s or low 30s - for Marietta, OH. At first thought it was a mistake or that I was seeing an old email from February. No. The date was May 15. We had to call Theresa, our house and dog guardian back in Marietta, to ask her to move plants indoors and cover others.

It brought to mind an Appalachian area term for this kind of cold snap: "Blackberry Winter." I first heard this from a client and friend, Paul Rich. At one of our meetings, conversation turned to the weather. It was early May but unusually cool and rainy at the time. "This is a blackberry winter, Dave," Paul explained nonchalantly. "It happens every year at about this time, when the blackberry plants bloom." 

This year I decided to research this further. Blackberry Winter is indeed a colloquial term common in Appalachia and the Midwest for a cold snap in May. The origin of the term is not clear; some believe that the cold weather somehow stimulates the growth of the plant or fruit.

                                                                                           Blackberry blossoms 

I found that there are other "winters" in spring besides blackberry winter, named for other trees in bloom at the time. These are, in order of the dates when they occur, locust winter, red bud winter, and dogwood winter. Then there was "linsey-woolsey winter," named for material once used in long underwear - clothing that had been put away too soon, believing that cold weather was done. Probably more than you wanted to know?

Weather has been a factor in human lives forever. Settlers of Marietta and residents in early times were especially sensitive to weather changes. Many had no shelter at first. Those that did had no heat, air conditioning, or other comforts that we enjoy today. And there was little weather forecasting that we take for granted today. So, they had to cope with whatever came their way. Cold snaps in May, when everyone had become used to warmer weather, was probably just as much a nuisance then as it is today.

James Backus lived in Marietta in 1788-89. His journal mentions the weather most days. May of 1789 had two possible blackberry winters. May 5,6,7 were reported as "cool weather, cool mornings, respectively. The weather two weeks later sounds more like our current weather: May 20 "cool, clear day." May 21 "cloudy, cool day." May 22 "cold, chilly."

So, enjoy this cold snap. Soon everyone will be complaining about how hot and humid it is. Or, as the early frontier settlers would have said using today's lingo: "deal with it!"

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