Dogwood Winter and Locust Honey

Reading and photographs by Robert Towe

From my nature journal. In the sharp windless chill of a mid-May morning, I put on hot water for tea and walk outdoors to check for frost. 37 degrees---not quite cold enough for water vapor to crystallize on tender leaves and flowers, killing the early developing fruit. Perhaps the blueberries and apples will make it this year. But in these upland valleys, late May frosts are not rare. Winter makes one last turn, her icy teeth piercing deep into the very sweetness of summer just as it is being born, in the delicate blossoms of fruit shrubs and trees.

Once again, we’re enjoying the predictable annual “Dogwood Winter”, a late spring cold snap that blows in from the north when Dogwoods are flowering. In a few weeks ‘Blackberry Winter’ will bring us one more chill, when blossoms coat the briary thickets like late wet snow. Usually, Blackberry Winter is the last of the springtime cold spells that threaten frost, until next fall.

Later, on my morning walk in the woods I catch the exquisitely sweet perfume of Black Locust in full bloom. The resilient wood of this tree is known for its durability and resistance to decay, and was used by the earlier settlers for cabin sills and fenceposts. Honeybees render the abundant Locust nectar into a fine, almost clear honey, available by early June. Poplar is another spring honey, but much darker, both in color and flavor.

Although I dearly relish the tangy Sourwood honey of late summer, I prize a quart of early Locust for its delicate flowerlike essence, especially delicious on a big hot biscuit with a slab of real butter. I fondly recall an old beekeeper friend from thirty years ago, when we lived much further back in the mountains. Jim knew his bees, tending twenty or thirty hives. He kept the major nectar flows separate, collecting the purest strains of honey. Late each spring he would set aside a quart of clear Locust honey for me. I recall its exquisite flavor, like the heavenly scent of the locust flowers themselves on a fresh cool morning in May.

Jim has been gone now for many years. Yet I still see his smile as he gave me a jar of that fine Locust honey. I remember holding it up to the light, the lemony colors of late spring sun passing through the miracle liquid. I relished it's delicate sweetness like friendship, filtering golden down the flow of years.