Summer Solstice and the Beginning of Summer

June and July bring the summer solstice, longer days, hotter temperatures and lightning storms.

| June/July 1993

  • 138-018-01--researchers
    In some parts of the country, June and July are the peak of lightning storms.

  • 138-018-01--researchers

I try to speak as an advocate for each season. Perhaps as you read this you're wiping the sweat from your brow and feeling enervated by yet another summer day of heat and humidity. If so, cheer up June and July are months of roses and berries, weddings and vacations, the living world at the height of its life. According to author Guy Ottewell, summer has a historic importance as well. Here's what he has to say in The Astronomical Companion (Astronomical Workshop; 1986): "Summer seems to be the oldest word [of the four names of the seasons in English], traceable back to the proto-Indo-European, and used not only for half the year but for a whole year, much as day stands for the day-night cycle; and we still understand such phrases as `Many summers ago ....' The cycle is counted by its peaks, its recurrent flashes of light." Summer is the peak by which we count and remember the year.

What is Summer Solstice?

What marks the beginning of summer? Some may believe it's the annual dragging out of the barbeque grill. Others may feel it's the first dip in the local lake. In the most technical terms, however, the answer is "summer solstice." This is the time in Earth's year-long orbit when the northern half of our planet is most tilted towards the Sun. Thus, even though Earth is a little farther from the Sun in July than in January, that isn't as important to us in the Northern Hemisphere as the fact that we are more tilted towards the Sun. Being more tilted means the Sun passes higher in our sky, making days longer. Unfortunately it also means the amount of solar radiation we receive is much greater.

St. John's Wort and Summer

Summer solstice was once considered the middle of summer and is the longest day of the year (although weather systems lag and July does tend to be hotter than June). Although the solstice now usually falls on June 21, long ago Midsummer's Day was celebrated on June 24, which the Church held to be St. John's Day, the birthday of John the Baptist. June 23 was Midsummer's Eve, which was celebrated with great bonfires on hills in England.

There is an interesting plant, or family of plants, associated with John the Baptist and his day. They are called St. John's worts and are found throughout the United States, most commonly in the eastern half of the country. They range in height from approximately four inches to six feet tall and display five-petaled yellow flowers with a spray of stamens in the middle.

In much of our country they really do start blooming around the summer solstice. These hardy plants, which also grow in Asia and Europe, were once considered effective in warding off witches and other evils. In her book, Naming Nature (Penguin Books; 1992), writer Mary Blocksma says that the St. John's worts of Michigan have a local reputation as a cure-all, and some Native Americans dry the plants to use as herbal remedies.

The flowers supposedly turn purple when boiled, and the best way to distinguish them from other five-petaled yellow flowers which bloom at that same time is to look at their leaves-many St. John's worts have tiny transparent dots on their leaves.

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