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The Naturalist's Journal: How to get through the Dog Days

August 2, 2013

A hummingbird moth busy working the pickerel weed blooms. (Photo by Bruce Fellman)

I’m told I have an unusually sensitive nose, and though I’m clearly no rival to the bloodhound or the rabbit, both of whom are said to have a sense of smell more than a million times better than our own, I suspect that I could have found gainful employment as a perfumer, a cook, a scented-rose breeder, or a seeker of broken gas pipelines. (Natural gas has no natural odor, so the utility companies add a volatile chemical called mercaptan to the gas. This stuff smells like, depending on your perspective, rotten eggs or decaying roadkill, the latter of which appeals to vultures, congregations of which are often used by pipeline guardians to find leaks.)

There are times, of course, when having a “good nose” is something of a liability, for I’m often the first person to detect something that needs cleaning, taking out to the trash cans, or, in the case of infants, a new diaper. But these days, a working sense of smell is an absolute joy. We’re now firmly in Clethra season, and a walk in the wetter parts of the woods or along the edges of most ponds and lakes is sheer heaven.
Clethra alnifolia, also known as summersweet and sweet pepperbush, is a very common shrub, between four and ten feet high, that produces enormous numbers of white flower spikes called racemes. These are particularly attractive to bumblebees, and when the Clethra is blooming, you can often find the Naturalist stopping by a patch of summersweet to drink in the show—or, perhaps more apt, to inhale the show.
The scent is incredibly powerful—I can detect it a quarter-mile away—and up close, some people have told me that it’s almost more than they can handle: cloying, rather than divine. To be sure, a Clethra patch in full bloom can be as over-obvious as a teenager’s first forays in the application of perfume—if a subtle hint is fine, a half-gallon is not better—but I really like the smell. In fact, I find it energizing, and as we head into the energy-draining Dog Days of August, the scent of sweet pepperbush is something that keeps me going, even as the hot, humid weather threatens to put me into a terminal torpor.
The Dog Days actually refer to an astronomical event: the time when Sirius, the Dog Star, starts making its presence in the pre-dawn sky. Although Sirius is the star of the winter sky and is associated with frigid weather, its rising for the first time in mid-summer augurs heat, often the strongest we’ll get. In an 1812 book called Clavis Calendria, Or, A Compendious Analysis of the Calendar, a British author named John Brady declared that this time period was characterized by climatological evils when “the Sea boiled, the Wine turned sour, Dogs grew mad, and all other creatures became languid; causing to man, among other diseases, burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies.”
It doesn’t sound like fun, but rather than give in to “phrensies”—honestly, who has the energy anyway?—I turn instead to the calming aroma of Clethra and to all the other reasons to be out at this time of year. If there’s a bit of a breeze, the mosquitoes, deerflies, and other sanguivorous insects are not too annoying. That respite from serving as an unwilling blood donor makes it pleasant to go in search of other spectacular blossoms, the most eye-catching of which is Lobelia cardinalis.
The cardinal flower is a stunning, almost lurid, red: think the feathers or formal vestments of the male bird or religious figure of the same name. Readers who have been with me for a long enough time have learned that I am red-green colorblind. It’s occasionally a liability, for there are field trips when something obvious to anyone with properly functioning eyes is utterly invisible to me. However, the L. cardinalis blooms are so red that even I can spot them. Then, too, these showy spikes of flowers are absolute magnets to ruby-throated hummingbirds, who “see red” and can’t resist coming in for a visit. I’ve actually had ruby-throats insist on visiting a garden spade with a red grip on the handle, so it’s no surprise to me that I can use the humming of these nectar-mad birds to find patches of cardinalis. Sometimes, these blossoms, and their pollinators, will even lure in a hummingbird moth or two, although typically, these day-flying hummingbird mimics are content to work the nearby pickerel weed flower spikes.
With the incessant electric whine of the Dog Day cicadas in the background and the dreaded temperature-humidity index so high that the weather feels like a giant hand pressing you into the ground, it would be easy to simply stay indoors and enjoy the comfort of the air-conditioner and the lack of biting insects. But the smell of the Clethra and the sight of the cardinalis blooms—these lack a strong aroma—are enough to lure me outside. Over and over.
There’s a parade of young pickerel frogs heading across the meadow. The great blue heron and osprey kids are growing rapidly. By day, there are new dragonflies and damselflies—black-shouldered spiny legs and powdered dancers, respectively—on the wing, and lots of painted turtles on the logs. And if you’re out by night, there are families of barred owls calling from the shadows, and the first katydids serenading from the shrubs and tree tops. The underwing moths are starting to come to the porch lights, and it’s time to relearn the evening insects, both by sound and sight.
The Dog Days may be here, but don’t give in to languor. There’s Clethra scent in the rich, warm air, even in the darkness. This perfume will get you going. I wish I could bottle it and use the scent to keep me going, long after the Dog Days are past.


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