Long before computer models for forecasting the winter ahead, there were simpler, folksier tools: persimmon seeds, woolly bear caterpillars and squirrels.
“There are long-held traditions about looking to nature for signs of the weather ahead,” said Tamara Walkingstick, associate director of the Arkansas Forest Resources Center, part of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.
One such tradition is prediction by splitting open persimmon seeds. The “Farmers Almanac” says if the kernel is spoon-shaped, wet snow will fall. If it is fork-shaped, it will be light powdery snow and a mild winter. A knife-shaped kernel indicates icy, cutting winds. The almanac suggests using locally grown fruit to be locally more accurate.
“My Daddy was one of those people who believe in these signs,” said Bette Rae Miller, who works at the Ozark Folk Center State Park in Mountain View. “For instance, Daddy was talking about corn silks. If you have a corn crop and your silks are very abundant, then you’re going to have a cold winter because they’re protecting things.
“There was another thing Daddy used to talk about — fog on the mountain,” Miller said. “For every fog on the mountain you saw in August, there would be a snow in January.”
Snow itself could be an indicator of things to come – especially snowfall between November and March. “If the snow lays on the ground for a week, then it’s waiting for another snow to happen,” Miller said. “That was true in my mother’s day. We haven’t had enough snow in Stone County.”
Miller said her father was also a believer in the persimmon seeds. So far this fall, “most of the persimmons split here in Stone County have been spoons,” she said.
Those results have been echoed in Benton County, said Extension Staff Chair Robert Seay. “The calls I’ve had from folks who’ve checked seed up here is they’re all coming up as spoons, which symbolizes ‘shovel’, meaning we’re in for snow,” he said.
In central Arkansas, result of local seed splittings has varied. Three seeds found at the Cooperative Extension Service headquarters in Little Rock, all from the same tree, found one knife, one fork and one spoon. Nearer to Perryville, two of two persimmon seeds showed spoons.
If the almanac is right, taken together, the persimmon prediction leans in favor of lots of heavy, wet snow.
How does this compare with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center, for example? The CPC three-month outlook for January-February-March 2013 shows Arkansas with an above-normal percent chance of precipitation statewide.
There are other folk methods for predicting winter’s severity. According to “The Foxfire Book,” look for a bad winter if:
- Squirrels begin collecting nuts early – in mid- to late-September
- If there was a heavy crop of berries, acorns and pinecones or
- Onions grow more layers
Another classic folk method for winter prediction is found in the hair of a woolly bear caterpillar. According to “The Foxfire Book,” winter will be bad if there are a lot of woolly bears around, and if the caterpillars have more black than brown. If the woolly bear is brown at both ends and orange in the middle, winter will be mild.
Whichever way winter goes, being prepared is serious business.
The Cooperative Extension Service has a preparedness fact sheet, “Be Aware and Prepare: Winter Storms,” available for download here.