The weather stick tells you if it's going to snow

There are many ways to forecast the weather, but if you want to know if it's going to rain or snow, try an old-fashioned New England weather stick.

Photo courtesy of Karan Davis Cutler
The New England weather stick is the epitome of low-tech weather forecasting.

Except for sailors, pilots, and TV forecasters, few people are more obsessed with the weather — the condition of air on earth — than gardeners. What’s the annual precipitation? What’s the percentage of possible sunshine? When is the last frost?

The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration is a treasure trove for the weather obsessed. It's also for the climate obsessed, since many NOAA data are collected over time. Climate is the long-term pattern. Weather is what’s happening today. Mark Twain said it perfectly: “Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get.”

NOAA not only uses the usual array of thermometers, barometers, anemometers, and hygrometers, it uses ceilometers, disdrometers, field mills, nephoscopes, pyranometers, solarimeters, and dozens more instruments not found on a backyard weather station.

I’m no Luddite. I own garden tools with moving parts, but I don’t have an array of complex weather instruments. My arsenal is limited to a rain gauge, a whirly-gig, and a weather stick.

Yes, a weather stick, which is nothing more that a slender, debarked branch from a balsam pine. About a foot long, you nail to the wall in a protected place. As rain and snow approach, the stick bends down; as the weather clears, it bends up.

It really does. Honest!

Scientists who have studied weather sticks — there actually are such people — report that in fact the sticks track relative humidity. Relative humidity typically goes up before it rains or snows, and falls in fair weather. If the stick the points up, Mother Nature won’t be watering your garden.

Like a weather stick, a good many plants can substitute for psychrometers, the instruments that measure humidity. Most famous is the scarlet pimpernel, Anagallis arvensis. Also known as the “poor man’s weather glass,” pimpernel flowers close when rain approaches. Morning glories do the same thing, and the leaves of oaks and maples act in a similar way, curling up when humidity is high.

Weather sticks probably originated with Abenaki tribes in the Northeast, but cagey Yankees have cornered the contemporary market. In addition to the Yea Olde Shoppes that dot the roads in New England, you can purchase weather sticks online by Googling “weather stick.” Prices vary, but most are under $10, which makes this entertaining but useful garden tool a great buy for Christmas.

And it’s not just the price that makes the weather stick a far better gift than another low-tech weather predicting tool, the pig spleen. You can look up the details on The Farmer’s Almanac website and see the action on YouTube, but, frankly, you don’t want to know.

Karan Davis Cutler, a former magazine editor and newspaper columnist, is the author of scores of garden articles and more than a dozen books, including “Burpee - The Complete Flower Gardener” and “Herb Gardening for Dummies.” She now struggles to garden in the unyieldingly dense clay of Addison County, Vt., on the shore of Lake Champlain, where she is working on a book about gardening to attract birds and other wildlife. She will be blogging regularly for Diggin’ It.

Editor’s note: To read more by Karan Davis Cutler, see our blog archive. The Monitor’s main gardening page offers articles on many gardening topics. See also our RSS feed. You may want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. Take part in the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos and enter our next contest.

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