Trusting the Barometer Bush

Rain ravens, we called them. Sculling through midwestern skies they circled higher than our imaginations, far beyond our sight, past the scudding clouds into apparent oblivion. Only their harsh, echoing call testified to their presence. Bending over her pan of cinnamon rolls my grandmother murmured her irritation. “Have to get the wash done early. There’s rain on the way.” More often than not, she was right.

There were other signs, of course, and she taught them all.  A halo’d moon meant rain – counting the number of stars inside the ring told the day of its arrival.  When rising winds lifted and twisted the deep-lobed maple leaves, their silvered, shivering backs might as well have been engraved, “The Rain is Coming”.

But those were midwestern signs, tokens of midwestern rain. Years later, a new life in Texas offered new signs, new portents. If the abominable fire ants raised their mounds, people watched the radar.  When laughing gulls rode the thermals, they became a seaside version of rain ravens. Rising in ever-tightening circles, disappearing into hot, searing skies or gauzy, lowering clouds, their cry was unmistakable: “Heed, heed…”

But of all the rain signs in Texas, my eventual favorite became an oft-ignored shrub known variously as Texas Sage, Texas Ranger, Cenizo, Silverleaf, Purple Sage or, because of its quirky yet predictable behavior, Barometer Bush.

Officially known as Leucophyllum frutescens, Barometer Bush is a tough, desert-loving plant native to Texas and Mexico. Resistant to drought, foraging deer, freezes, high winds, salt spray and blazing heat, its foliage has the soft, grayish appearance of some salvias or Dusty Miller. The blossoms, ranging in color from pink to lavender, tend to appear in times of high humidity or after rain has left the soil damp and pliable – hence the name, Barometer Bush.

Because suddenly rising humidity often precedes rain in arid or semi-arid climates, the sage can be tempted to bloom just as suddenly before a rain. Depending on the degree of drought, the excitement over its flowering can be palpable.

I first encountered blooming sage on a Ranch Road south of Uvalde, Texas. Astonished to see the nondescript, silvery-leafed shrubs I passed each day suddenly awash in shades of lavender, thistle and plum, I asked about the abrupt change. “You wait,” said an old-timer. “There’s rain coming, for sure.”  Three days later, it poured.

Sage can tolerate city life as well as a more humid coastal climate, and I’ve discovered three large clumps in my current neighborhood. Down at the PeeWee Golf course, they’ve planted Purple Sage around their business sign. There’s a good stand in a vacant lot not far from the Johnson Space Center and another on a badly landscaped corner in a neighborhood filled with expensive cars and boring houses. 

Over the course of this summer’s drought I’ve nearly given up watching weather reports, but I did keep an eye on the sage.  On June 6, I noticed the PeeWee Golf course sage in riotous bloom, every inch covered with purple flowers that nearly obscured its silver leaves.  I mentioned my sighting to some friends. “You know what blooming purple sage means, don’t you?” I said. “Rain!” I couldn’t tell them exactly when the rain would arrive – some say 7-10 days is a good rule of thumb – but I knew it was coming. The sage said so.

And in fact, there was rain. On the first day post-bloom, there were only scattered showers, enough to wet the pavement and scatter puddles along the curb. The next day, a big, beautiful afternoon cloud built up over the lake and the rain didn’t stop for an hour. Half-an-inch was common, and people were smiling. For the next few days showers popped up here and there until finally, on the 16th, exactly ten days after my sign and portent bloomed, I woke to gray skies and drizzle. Before it was over, it had rained an inch-and-a-half over four hours. When I drove by to check on the Barometer Bush, it seemed to be smiling an extraordinarily self-satisfied smile.

Of course, it could be coincidence. But I noticed yesterday that the bush has returned to life as a nondescript, silvery-gray bush with nary a bloom in sight. The humidity is down to forty percent this morning, and rain chances are back to the forecasters’ usual “I’ll say twenty percent just in case, but I don’t really believe it”. 

Let the forecasters say what they will – we need more rain, and I intend to keep an eye on those Barometer Bushes. I’ve lived long enough in Texas to think that’s sage advice.

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48 thoughts on “Trusting the Barometer Bush

  1. And I was just going to blame the rain on the workers framing the house in my backyard…It seems the day we actually started construction the skies began to open up again. It probably won’t rain again after we close it up…Go figure.

    1. Gary,

      How I laughed – in rueful recognition as much as amusement. The same phenomenon is well-known to us varnishers. Gray skies? High humidity? No rain forecast? Just lay down a final coat of varnish and see what happens!

      Good luck with the house – I don’t suppose we could persuade you to stop the framing until we’ve made up our deficit? ;-)


  2. Sage is a wonderfully hearty plant. My sister had one in front of their home and I nearly killed it trying to save it during their remodel, but now, it sits in a spot on the side of their home and it’s huge and gorgeous. It competes nicely with the lavender bushes alongside.

    1. Snoring Dog Studio,

      Kudos to you for saving the sage. A friend up in the Texas hill country transplanted some a few years ago, and fussed and fretted for months over the thing. But as you say, it’s resilient and can survive some pretty rough treatment.

      I’m not a fan of lavender, particularly, but I can imagine how attractive the combo is. I hope your sister’s properly appreciative of your efforts!


  3. My grandfather always told me to watch out when the trees showed the silvery undersides of their leaves…”Big storm coming,” he’d day. “Better go on in the house.”

    I love the idea of a “barometer bush.” Not aware of any in the Midwest, but if I knew of one I’d be keeping an eye out. It’s ridiculously dry here too. Not even washing my car could bring on the rain.

    1. Becca,

      The leaves were a big one for us – especially the weeping willow across the street in the school yard. I used to hear that cows lying down in a field was a sign of rain, but I’m not convinced of that one.

      Now, for tempting rain, nothing beats car-washing, unless it’s laundry-hanging! Well, or varnishing. ;-)


    1. Jo,

      Let’s face it – we’ve become so used to staring at various screens and taking our life second hand we rarely look at the world around us. So many things – like old-time weather prediction – are simply a matter of close observation.

      We’re fascinated by people like Thoreau, Muir and Dillard, but in the end their gift begins with the gift of attention.

      I’ll bet I would have missed the blooming bush if I’d been texting or talking while I drove!


  4. I want one. That sounds so cool. I wonder if they’d grow up here at 8000 ft? I also wonder if there is something simalar already growing here and I just need to pay attention… thanks for the idea

    1. newmexicomtngirl,

      I did some snooping around, and did find one salvia for you – Salvia leucantha. I couldn’t find anything about its rain predicting skill, but my goodness, it’s a beauty and native to your area. Anything that brings in the bees and butterflies is a good one!

      I just walked out and discovered my mystery cactus is going to bloom again. I have to get that thing identified – over ten years without a single blossom, and now three! I’ll get better photos of the whole process this time – it’s a night bloomer, for one thing. I love nature’s surprises!


  5. What an interesting post, Linda! Barometer Bush is a sage indeed. Wonder if weather forecasters check on them? ;) The flowers are beautiful too. I’m just wondering how do they all ‘disappear’? Do they leave withered remnants on the leaves or are they totally gone?

    Another thought came into my mind as I read your post, and that’s a line from Wordsworth’s poem: “Let Nature be your teacher.” So true, there are just unlimited lessons, signs, indications, pointers, … what not that we can get from our natural environs. I’d love to read more from you regarding this topic.

    1. Arti,

      Oh, my. I don’t know – we often laugh and wonder if the weather forecasters even look out their windows!

      Generally, the blooms just fade after a day or so, dry up and blow away. I’m surprised at the number of plants that have short bloom cycles – hibiscus, for example, or many of my cactus. One or two days, and that’s it. If I were a plant and went to all that trouble to put out a stunning blossom, I think I’d like it to stick around for a while longer, but that’s just me.

      Ha! It just occurred to me – I’ve just taken a stance in favor of “slow blooming”! ;-)

      Which reminds me – if you haven’t read it, there’s a great profile piece on Jaron Lanier in the July 11 & 18 issue of the New Yorker. He’s the author of “You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto”, a critique of digital technologies. I particularly liked this quotation: “If you listen first, and write later, then whatever you write will have had time to filter through your brain, and you’ll be in what you say.”

      Which sounds remarkably like what I wrote in “Reading, Writing & Thinking: A Paradigm for Blogging”. That might be worth a re-work and republish. Amazing that I was so clear on that only three months into this little endeavor.


  6. Linda,

    I’m thinking of those beautiful blooms as a promise.

    Where I live, I think of enduring the hot summer days as part of a deal. If I can stand the high temps, I’ll often get my favorite weather at the end of the day— pounding rain, flashing and booming, and ripping winds to cool everything off.

    Of course, Mother Nature is a good mom who doesn’t believe in spoiling her kids— she doesn’t dole out a reward every time I deal with the heat. And, of course, I’m like a sneaky kid— Mom doesn’t know I’m spending most of my day in air conditioning!


    1. Claudia,

      And of course that’s the promise we’ve always lived with – those marvelous building storms that provide just the right touch of drama, plenty of rain and lovely, fading sunsets. Unfortunately, there’s a lot more enduring and a lot less enjoying going on right now!

      Mother Nature’d better watch her step, or her kids are going to turn sullen and resentful – a different kind of spoiled! Ah, well. Feast or famine, and all that. Our turn will come – in the meantime, I’m joining you in the AC!


  7. When I was a kid, we were told to watch the silver maples. When their leaves turn upside down, a storm is coming. My mother-in-law and I used to sit on her front porch and peel peaches. She used to say the heat bugs were screaming for rain.

    I’m so glad you received a little rain. I hope the Barometer Bush blooms again soon.

    1. Bella,

      You know that bit about TMI – too much information? Well, I had “not enough information” when I read your comment! I’ve never heard the expression “heat bugs” in my life – imagine my surprise to learn they’re cicadas!

      I do love them, although in a good year they can require earplugs. I heard one on my way to the mailbox the other day and found it on a crepe myrtle trunk. They’re neat creatures – but if they’re screaming for rain, it seems like they’ve given up this year in our area. It’s pretty quiet out there.

      We’re to the point where the sight of a cloud is pretty exciting. That’s pathetic. But thanks for the good wishes! August is coming, and with luck something tropical will shake loose.


    1. Kit,

      Poor Don is turning into a shadow of his formerly weak self – sigh. I’ll be surprised if we get much at all from him, especially since the expectation is that he’ll come in around Corpus. Still, the whole state needs rain, so we can’t grump too much if we miss out this time! (And there will be a next time…)


  8. This was a wonderful post, so educational for us who don’t know the southwest like you. It’s wonderful and mysterious that you have a plant that can predict rain, a truly precious commodity in your arid climate!

    Thank you so much.

    1. Wild_Bill,

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I suspect the world speaks with a multitude of voices that rarely are heard – not because they have no clarity, but because we have so little sensitivity.

      Someone asked me a year or so ago what advice I’d give the world if I could use only three words. I only needed two: pay attention. ;)


    1. Andrew,

      Just for fun, I did a quick search for “weather proverbs” – and there are plenty, going at least back to Virgil! Of course many of them are specific to certain areas, like the sage. I wonder what weather signs are common to the Chilean countryside – or city? I’ll bet there are some that involve the Andes!


  9. Linda: I’ve never heard of this lore of the Texas Sage. Great! I’ll be looking for the blossoms now on our terrace. I planted two sages three years ago and have not noticed the portents (good word, Greek maybe, Roman). I see connections here that defy easy explanation. Shouldn’t discredit old-timers. We don’t have wild sage here although my blog is named Sage to Meadow. What I want to see are my sages blazing with purple blossoms!

    1. Jack,

      I did a quick drive-by of the PeeWee golf sage a couple of days ago, just to see what it had to say about TS Don. Only a few scattered blossoms – I suppose to go with the scattered showers he produced as the drought dissipated that system, too.

      We shouldn’t discredit the “old-timers”, in a lot of ways. We do, unfortunately, and so the sensitivity to weather signs goes the same way as “a stitch in time” and “sowing and reaping”.

      Ah, well. May we all be blessing with sages that bloom and bloom – and then bloom some more!


  10. Laughter with your last line….”sage advice…” yup, I love it. As for the naysayers who suggest that we’ve ruined the earth thus leaving Gaia mute in terms of predicting weather, I couldn’t agree less. The earth speaks.
    Rock on, Barometer Bush! Rock on, mackerel skies! Rock on, silver leaves up! And rock on, our little “storm glass” that is just like the one Darwin used to predict weather when sailing on the Beagle.
    I’ll take nature’s signs and predictions any day. If we pay attention, the info is there. I didn’t know about this particular sage – but what fun to watch. I’m a believer in it and I’m not even there. Keep us posted!
    (and glad you got some rain. And glad you’re writing, too.)

    1. oh,

      I’d forgotten the mackerel skies! And the mare’s tails. Keep an eye to the sky, the old folks said – and they were right.

      The earth does speak – one of the first lessons I learned in Vacation Bible School. Remember the old hymn – “This is My Father’s World”? The second verse always was my favorite:

      “This is my Father’s world,
      the birds their carols raise,
      the morning light, the lily white,
      declare their maker’s praise.
      This is my Father’s world:
      he shines in all that’s fair;
      in the rustling grass I hear him pass;
      he speaks to me everywhere.”

      One summer we spent the whole two weeks on the song – one day, we’d go out to listen to the birds. The next, we’d go looking for flowers or grasses. Imagine – before there was a “green movement” or a demand for eco-sensitivity, we were learning to appreciate and care for the world.

      Well, how’s that for a side trip? But it’s all connected, as you know. What you can’t recognize you can’t love, and what you don’t love you can’t care for. So we’ll live through our drought and see what it has to say to us!


        1. All is well, Arti. I’m just struggling to try and begin reading and writing again. I do have a draft in process, so I think things will be back to what passes for normal around here soon!

      1. Yes! I remember the hymn: as soon as you metioned the title, the tune began to play in my head! What a lovely way to show a hymn, having you go outdoors each day to experience what the lines were talking about! I hadn’t thought of the hymn in ages.

        1. It’s amazing how deeply embedded our childhood hymns become. I may be mostly Lutheran theologically, but my internal hymnal is – well, rural-Iowa-Methodist-and-grandma. I can reel off the whole list, and believe me – there was nothing better than going to the church for singing and supper on the grounds!

  11. Every time I hear someone complain about how lousy business is (and I’m including myself here), I try to remember all of the farmers who have to depend on something as unpredictable as the weather. They can do everything right and still be wiped out by a drought. No wonder there are so many signs of rain, and so many people hoping those signs are accurate.

    1. bronxboy,

      Yes, and then when the drought ends, here come the floods. Or the heat. Or the ice and blizzards. You don’t have to listen very closely to hear Mother Nature saying, “Guess what? You’re not in control here.” And my goodness, we do love being in control..

      The first crop disaster I remember was corn, in Iowa. It was a hailstorm that took it out. One day it was a gorgeous, bountiful crop, standing tall in the fields, the ears fully formed and only weeks from harvest. The next, there were only shredded and smashed stalks lying on the ground. No one blamed the farmers for crying. But of course they did what had to be done – they cleaned up, and planted again the next year.


    1. jeanie,

      Absolutely! And you do know that, if you count the number of stars inside the halo, it will tell you how many days until the rain?

      The world speaks and sings and dreams, and we -? Sometimes we listen. ;-)


  12. I used to be a river guide on the Rio Grande and sometimes us guides would do a private trip. On one such trip on the Pecos before we got into the canyon proper we were delighted by the most astounding sight. Ceniza blankets those hills out there and there had been a recent rain and the landscape around us was that most beautiful purple, a sight I had never seen before or since.

    Thanks for visiting. I enjoyed your comments.

    1. Ellen,

      What a wondrous sight that must have been! When the element of surprise is added, nature can take our breath away. I still remember the trip I made through New Mexico when I suddenly was in the midst of blooming cactus, red and yellow, all the way to the horizon. it was one of the most beautiful things I ever have seen.

      Being on the Rio Grande must have been equally wonderful. I’ve floated the Guadalupe and the Frio, but those are rather different experiences. ;-)


  13. “We all know what befalls little boys who lie: they grow up to become weather forecasters.” I’ve converted to Barometer Bushes.

    The sage I grow ends up in turkey stuffing and other culinary delights.


    1. Rick,

      Chestnuts, oysters and giblets are fine, but I still follow midwestern tradition and make a good sage stuffing.

      As for the bush – its forecasts continued to verify right up through the middle of November. Now, it appears to be “on leave” until the spring, so we’ll just have to count on radar and computer models. Not nearly so much fun!


  14. Just took a drive around Austin and saw the sage in riotous bloom everywhere. I’m excited and hopeful. Seven to ten days is a long time to wait in this searing heat, but at least there is a morsel of hope!

    1. Oh, gracious. I just looked at your forecast, and I see what you mean about searing heat. Your humidity is much lower than it’s been here on the coast — 90% at 7 a.m. isn’t exactly refreshing — but, still: you deserve a break.

      I saw something last Sunday that seemed a little odd, but there it was: great colonies of rain lilies had sprouted up from Texas City to Galveston, and on Galveston Island itself. I’d never seen so many at a time (the fragrance was wonderful) but of course in a day they were gone. Whether it was the humidity that coaxed them out, or whether the spotty rain showers we’ve had were enough to do the trick, I can’t say.

      In any case, I hope we all get some rain, and sooner rather than later. Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for the tip on the sage. It would be great if its predictive powers were proven again!

    1. I believe them, too. It’s easy to smell rain before it reaches us, so why not the scent of the sage? What’s so wonderful about the exchange in the comment just above is that, sure enough, rain showed up in Austin and Houston just about ten days after the heavy bloom.

      Thanks for the kind words. I always seem to wax a little more poetic when I’m writing about Texas.

  15. If the sage is right, we should be in for much needed rain because it’s in full bloom from Paint Rock on the Concho , up to Ballinger and over to San Angelo. I’ve seen the sage in bloom from time to time , in isolated areas , but never in such a large area all at the same time. If the sage is accurate , we’ll certainly welcome the rain , if not , we’ll just enjoy the beauty of the hardy plant , or shrub , whichever you prefer.

    1. I certainly do hope you get your rain. The Kerrville/Comfort/Medina area just got rain after a sage bloom, so I’ll cross my fingers for you.

      Part of your area’s special to me. I have a rug from Ingrid’s Handwoven Rugs in Paint Rock. I picked it up when I was coming home from a trip. It was my second visit to the place, and I was lucky enough to get a tour from Reinhard. If nothing else, you might enjoy seeing the photos that I posted.

      Not many people around here know about Paint Rock, or the pictotographs, or the general beauty of the country in that area, but I like it — and, I like the Concho County courthouse. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, and bringing all those good memories to the surface! ~ Linda

      1. When we first joined most of my family , which had been in the Ballinger – Paint Rock area for over thirty years , my wife was offered a job at Ingrids , but unfortunately she had already been hired at another business. I just heard the rumble of thunder off to the west and south . The weather forcasters , please excuse my language , be damned , I’ll watch the purple sage, and the photos were great.

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