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The Garden Gate: Get ready for April’s series of contrasts

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By Ellen Probert Williamson
Spring officially began this year on March 20, and with it comes some warmer days. New leaves are beginning to appear on some of the trees, and little violets and forget-me-nots star the new grass among dandelions. So many springtime traditions come to mind.

Soon it will be April, a month of tremendous contrasts in history, legend and tradition.

Easter lilies and traditions are everywhere. How did the Easter bunny become associated with an extremely serious religious holiday? How could a rabbit, which is a mammal, lay eggs?

The Easter bunny finds its roots in the mythology of a constellation. In this case it is Lepus the Hare.

In Greco-Roman mythology, Lepus was placed among the stars by Hermes, the messenger to the Olympian gods, to honor its swiftness. It is often considered to be the prey of the hunter Orion and his large dog, Canis Major.

Other cultures had different stories associated with these same stars. Ancient Egypt imagined, not a hare, but a boat for Osiris. Arabic people believed the four brilliant stars in Lepus represented four camels drinking from the river Eridanus.

In Anglo-Saxon mythology, the hare was actually a bird that was transformed by Ostara, the goddess of spring. To compensate for its new inability to fly, Ostara gave the hare speed and agility. Legend says that once a year, in the spring, the hare laid eggs the way it did when it was a bird.

So in the spring, people would hunt for the eggs laid by the hare or, as we say today, by the Easter bunny.

April is also notable for the worldwide and several-centuries-old celebration of April Fools’ Day. The origins of this seemingly ridiculous observance are obscure, but many historians believe they may be traced to Pope Gregory XIII’s decision to adopt the Gregorian calendar.

Previously, much of Europe had used the Julian calendar, which observed New Year’s Day on April 1. The new calendar placed New Year’s Day on Jan. 1, but many people either did not wish to accept this, or did not believe that this was a real or permanent change.

Those who accepted it began to make fun of the ones who clung to the old customs and started to play tricks on them on April 1, which they termed Fools’ Day.

So many of spring’s flowers have wonderful legends and myths. But only one ever became a political symbol. Violets were chosen by the French Bonapartists as their emblem during Napoleon’s exile on the Island of Elba in 1814. Napoleon was then nicknamed “Caporal Violet, the little flower that returns with spring,” and France was flooded with postcards picturing bunches of violets.

This seemed innocent enough at first glance, but upon close examination it was apparent the flowers pictured incorporated little portraits of Napoleon, his wife, Maria Louisa, and their 3-year-old son, Charles, called the King of Rome.

On and off for many years, the French government fought by decree any reproduction of the violet. This campaign finally died down, but violets continued to be fashionable for some time for wearing and as the perfume Violet Sec, introduced by Coty at about this time.

It is recorded that when Cadillac first landed from Quebec in 1701 in the area that is now Detroit, he brought along a gardener whose duty was to lay out orchards and gardens. But he found thousands of early spring wildflowers in woods, fields and along the lakeshore that already provided a vast natural, beautiful garden there.

Fiddlehead ferns were plentiful in lakeside swamps there, as they are here in Tennessee, and they were a springtime staple food cooked and eaten by both colonists and Indians.

The redbud is in bloom in our gardens and along the highways of Roane County, contrasting its vibrant red-purple to the more ethereal blossoms on the fruit trees.

There are seven varieties of redbud, all members of the pea family, that have heart-shaped leaves and small blossoms.

One variety, the Judas tree can grow to a height of 40 feet or more. Native to Europe and Asia, it gets its name from the legend that Judas Iscariot hanged himself from the redbud tree.

March is about to give way to April, a month of sunshine and showers, warming days and thunderstorms, crisp nights and warm noon. It gives credence to the saying, “April showers bring May flowers.”

We look forward to the flowers.

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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.