When the days get very hot and the gardeners are so sweaty that even their hands sweat, most plants, with exception of a few that like to bloom at this time like the rudbeckias and the perennial hibiscus, slow down. Even if deadheaded, they rebloom more slowly. These are “the dog days” of August. I wondered what this phrase means and where it comes from, so I did a bit of research.
The ancient Romans thought these hottest and most sultry days of the year were an evil time causing “the sea to boil and the wine to sour.” They “made dogs mad and other creatures languid, gave humans disease, burning fevers, hysterics and phrensies.”
The phrase is the term given to the time of year when Sirius, the largest star in the Canis Major constellation, is in conjunction with the sun; that is it rises and sets in relation to the sun. It is also the largest star in the sky. The mythology of Sirius and its relationship to the earth go back to ancient times.
The Egyptians used Sirius as a “watchdog’ for the flooding of the Nile and thought that, given its relation to the sun and its size, it added heat to the earth, causing hot and sultry days. The flooding of the Nile allowed them to grow food so Sirius was associated with abundance and was connected to their highest-ranking gods and goddesses. Additionally, they believed the souls of the dead went to Sirius. They made this time the beginning of their new year and based their calendar on it.
Here are some more interesting bits about Sirius:
The Mesopotamians called Sirius “the dog.”
In The Iliad, Homer compared Achilles to Sirius and suggested that its reflection on the bronze armor results in “ill fortune and death that is associated with the summer sauna and brings great fever to frail men” The Greeks named the star Seiros which means scorching and called it colloquially the Dog Star.
Aristotle mentions “dog days.”
The ancient Chinese called Sirius the heavenly wolf and thought of it as the bridge between heaven and hell.
The Assyrians called it “dog of the sun.”
The ancient Babylonians referred to Sirius as “dog that leads.”
The Akkadians called it “Dog Star of the Sun.”
The Phoenicians called Sirius “the one who barks”
The early people of this continent had mythologies with Sirius at the center.
The aspect of the dog days is used in connection with the stock market when during this slow time of year; poorly performing stocks are called “dogs.”
The patron saint of dogs, Saint Roch, is celebrated on August 16.
Dickens mentions it in a description of Scrooge.
When the beliefs moved into common use it was said that this time would: “make women more passionate, men more feverish, and that dogs would get rabies, become lethargic and mad.”
While I was researching the “dog days,” which astrologically are really July 3 to August 11, I discovered much more information than can possibly be mentioned here. I realized that this ubiquitous phrase has a long and multifaceted history.
I dread the dog days in the garden, but there are tasks to do: Harvest the bounty from the vegetable garden. Vegetables left on plants stop further production. Prune flowering shrubs. Keep watering, deadheading, and weeding. Make sure your mulch is heavy enough and has not been blown away. Plant garlic, you will be thankful you did next year. Water regularly and deeply at the base of the plants. Pick herbs for drying. Make green tomato chutney and mincemeat. Make pickles and freeze tomatoes.
Peas, beans, radishes, spinach, lettuce, kale and even early maturing tomatoes can be planted. (I would plant tomato plants, not seeds.)
This is the time to make those bulb lists for fall-planted bulbs. When you see colchicums at the nurseries, get a few and plant them for a wonderful surprise. Look around your garden and decide which plants will need dividing. And as my husband says about the heat in the garden when I complain, “yield to it.”
Jeanelle Myers is a professional gardener and consultant, for gardening discussion you can call her at 631-434-5067.