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.