Spring in the Time of Coronavirus

Pollen, Leaves, Elbows, Violets, and That Bend in Buffalo Bayou


March 28, 2020

Spring came unusually early this year, in case you were too preoccupied with other news to notice. Which brings up the question: how is spring determined?

There’s astronomical spring. And meteorological spring. And actual spring.

And a pandemic. But that’s a different topic. (Keep your fingers out of your face!)

One way we know that actual spring is here in Houston: the mounds of oak pollen and leaves on the ground accompanied by the obnoxious sound and smell of leaf-blowers blowing the pollen and leaves (and dirt) around. (Been very windy too.)


Live Oak leaves and pollen. Spring 2020. Photo SC


Tree pollen, mostly live oak, is generally highest in March in Houston. And yes, we have had record amounts of oak pollen, which comes from the long dangling male flower of the tree spreading its seed and causing lots of alarming coughing, sneezing, and brain fog. Though it seems that based on a perusal of City of Houston Health Department records, which go back online only to 2013, tree and oak pollen in March 2019 was way worse.

The male live oak flower pollinates the much smaller female flower, but it’s the female flower that turns into acorns. (Yes, we’re talking about tree sex.)

By the way, native live oaks support 425 different species of creatures compared to our beloved but basically useless non-native crepe myrtles, which support only FOUR (4), according to Kelli Ondracek, manager of Natural Resources for the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, who spoke about the City’s riparian restoration projects at a recent Houston Sierra Club meeting.


Not to Panic

Watching leaves fall in the spring (and pollen raining down) may be confusing to people who aren’t familiar with live oaks.  As if we don’t have enough to panic about. (Use your elbows!) But live oaks naturally lose their leaves in the spring when new, green leaves push out the old ones. (Hmm, sounds like some politician’s COVID-19 plan.)

Which brings us to meteorological spring, which meteorologists established some time ago based on temperature patterns. Meteorological spring began on March 1 in the Northern Hemisphere and runs through the end of May. Since we’ve been having record warm weather, with an abnormally warm spring predicted, they may have to change that date. Maybe eliminate winter altogether. Just go right to summer.

Astronomical spring came early too, the earliest in 124 years. This arrival of spring is determined by the vernal equinox, which happens when the sun is directly over the earth’s equator, creating a day that is the same length as the night. Astronomical spring arrived Thursday, March 19, at 10:50 p.m. CST.


Spring on the Bayou

So it was spring and time for the Spring 2020 photograph in our ongoing series documenting the same bend in Buffalo Bayou throughout the seasons.

Except that due to the new and different coronavirus COVID-19, our world-renowned photographer, Jim Olive, was on general lockdown with his beloved in the state of California. So we set out to the woods on our own.

“Remember to turn your iPhone horizontal,” Jim texted helpfully from Palm Springs.


A Pleasure to be in the Woods, Mostly

It was a Monday afternoon and Memorial Park was unusually busy. Many staying-at- or working-from-home parents with staying-at-home children were walking and riding bikes around the South Picnic Loop. Usually, under Jim’s direction, we take the photo shortly after sunrise. But it was rainy and foggy early in the morning, and we were concerned about a possible further shut-down.

So we slid around the wire fence and Do Not Enter sign blocking the path through the woods for no good reason. (The unofficial but popular trail here is no steeper or more dangerous than other official trails on the west side of the park.)

The first thing we were forced to see, unfortunately, was the River Oaks Country Club’s massively destructive project on the south side of the bayou across the way. This misguided and largely unnecessary “repair” project has razed the trees and bulldozed the natural high bank, in the process destroying a stopping point for our geology classes, as the long-standing bank there revealed the geologic history of the river and region. The club destroyed that and installed ugly concrete and sheet pile walls and riprap here and on two other locations downstream.


Bank “repair” by River Oaks Country Club on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou across from Memorial Park. Photo by SC March 23, 2020



We filed two complaints about the deficiencies and irregularities in the federal permit process for this offensive $21 million project, which is likely to cause, if not already causing, damage and increased flooding downstream and across the way – to our public park. (The City of Houston floodplain permit process is likewise ineffectual, dependent on a “review” from the Harris County Flood Control District, a review which essentially consists of checking to see that the construction plans were signed by a licensed engineer.) A few weeks ago we spoke with Kenny Jaynes, head of compliance in the regulatory division of the Galveston District, US Army Corps of Engineers, about our complaints. Basically the polite message was that given the responsibilities and lack of resources, funding, and staff, it was unlikely we would have any kind of a response from the Corps soon. And this was before the coronavirus pandemic got started in the US.


Back to the Path

But on a positive note, it seemed that someone had been clearing fallen trees and tangled vines and lightly maintaining the unofficial dirt footpath through the woods above the high bank of the bayou. It was much more walkable than it was last time we were there. We express our gratitude.

We took photographs and looked around.


This small sandy creek is the main tributary flowing through Memorial Park into Buffalo Bayou. Photo by SC March 23, 2020.


We were relieved to see wild violets, wild chives, wood sorrel, and Indian strawberries growing close to the ground. Which is what should be there.

Did you know that, among the many things in the woods, pine needles, pine bark, and pine cones are edible and good for you? Pine needles can be used like rosemary. Very high in Vitamin C.

And yes, pines are naturally occurring in Memorial Park west through Memorial, Piney Point, all the way to Bastrop, in case someone told you differently.

And here is what that Bend in the River looks like in Spring 2020. Nowhere near so good as Jim’s. We’re hoping he’ll be back soon to shoot another. But note the green on the banks.


Since Jim Olive was on coronavirus lockdown in California, SC took this photo around 3 p.m. on March 23, 2020. Flow was high, about 900 cubic feet per second. We’re hoping JO will be back soon to take a better one.


For those who can’t get out into the woods, here is short video of the winding, sandy stream that flows from the center of the park into the bayou. How fortunate we are to have this in the middle of Houston.


And Through the Woods

We took the long way back, following the zig-zagging path west around up and down ravines through the woods. We weren’t entirely alone. We came across some bike riders and a few families with young children. Which was good to see, at a distance. Too often parents stop short of taking their children onto the trails into the precious and mysterious woods.

It was relaxing and reassuring to be out in nature. Our spirits were much lifted. We recommend it. The paths in Memorial Park, even the official paths, are steep and slippery in places, but there are large sections along the long and meandering Green Trail on the east and the Purple Trail on the west that are flat and easy to manage.


Lovely little off-trail path in the woods of Memorial Park. But beware of poison ivy! Photo by SC March 23, 2020


Stay safe and healthy everyone.