When I was young, the dog days were looked upon with particular dread. We feared the mad dogs and wild animals that might carry the mad-dog disease. Stories spread about unfortunate people who got rabies and started foaming at the mouth. I had nightmares about people tied to trees because they were “mad” and could not be set loose on the population of healthy people. My parents wouldn’t let me walk the half-mile to Granny’s house by myself. We couldn’t swim in the creek because the water was supposedly filled with venemous snakes, toxic germs, and all manner of ill.
Now I know the dog days are the long, hot days that follow the summer solstice. About June 21, the sun’s most direct rays fall on the Tropic of Cancer, and that puts us closer to the sun than at any other time. After the solstice, the earth begins to tilt in the opposite direction, and the sun begins its annual trek back to the Equator and points beyond. As it progresses on its journey southward, we enjoy cooler fall weather and eventually the winter.
Serius, the dog star, rises in July and August just before the sun peeks over the horizon. According to the ancient Egyptians, this star intensified the rays of the sun. Perhaps they didn’t know about the tilting of the Earth on its axis, so they explained summer's heat based on what they could observe. Hippocrates, like Mother, thought this time of year to be unhealthy.
Not everyone agrees that Serius is a troublesome star or that it causes bad things like the flooding of the Nile or rabies. In Captain Ezra Harper’s novel, Dogstar, the old man believed that a person’s spirit was a kind of energy. People and dogs had this spirit, he thought, and when they died the spirit went up to the stars. He explained to a child in the story that dogs, when they died, went up to the dog star. “I can’t imagine anything else that would keep it burning so bright and constant,” he told the child.
Gardeners have learned to cope with the dog days of summer. They do their outdoor activities early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Some of our plants struggle because they can’t come in during the hottest part of the day. This is the time when we learn which plants are truly adapted to the heat and humidity of southern summers. Look now, and take notes. Next spring when you head to the garden center, take your notes with you. Choose plants that you know will last for the summer.
A walk around my garden this morning revealed several stalwarts blooming in spite of it all. Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia) and purple coneflowers (Echinacea) were in full bloom. Summer phlox (Phlox paniculata) bears heavy panicles of scented flowers. Whirling butterflies (Gaura lindheimeri) is reblooming following a cutting back that it received about a month ago. Cigar plant (Cuphea ignea), butterfly weed (Asclepias), and purple shield (Strobilanthes) make a pleasing combination. The complementary colors of Brazilian verbena (V. bonariensis) and tiger lilies (Lilium lancifolium) add drama to their area. Salvia ‘Indigo Spires’ rises behind a white shrimp plant (Justicia) and creates an interesting contrast in color and form. Blackberry lily (Iris domestica) and society garlic (Tulbaghia) are here for another summer of high performance.
Many annuals dress up the border in deep summer. Zinnias, Madagascar periwinkle, gomphrena, melampodium, celosia, pentas, begonia, ageratum, coleus, dusty miller, impatiens, and several others will last until frost. Caladiums fill containers with bright color or lighten shady areas with whites and pleasing pastels. Crape myrtle, althaea, hibiscus and yellow bells (Tecoma stans) add a middle layer and tie it all together.
These beauties are best observed from my Florida room windows. Although I do not believe, like Hippocrates, that this is a particularly unhealthy time of year, the sun can do considerable damage if one becomes over exposed. Mosquitoes can drive one to distraction in the late afternoon and early evening. Maybe Mother and old “Hippo” had it partly right. Best just to stay inside. Let the sun shine and the flowers bloom. Cooler days will be here before you know it.