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Vernal Equinox on Friday, March 20, at 4:44 a.m. Pacific standard time heralds the beginning of the spring season for Earth's northern hemisphere. At the instant of vernal equinox, the sun lies in the plane of Earth's equator. As a consequence, days and nights are of equal length (12 hours each) everywhere on our planet. Another consequence is that the sun rises due east along the horizon and sets due west. During the next three months, as the sun shines more and more directly on our hemisphere, daylight hours will lengthen and the rise and set positions of the sun will gradually shift toward the northeast and northwest, respectively.

The Pleasantly Pungent Odor of sage is filling the air wherever native vegetation grows on the county's coastal and lower-foothill slopes. Most common are the black sage, with tight clusters of small, white flowers; the grayish-leaved white sage; purple-blossomed, sweet-smelling Cleveland sage; and California sagebrush, characterized by soft, needle-like leaves.

Yuccas of two varieties are in bloom in San Diego County from now through May. Year after year, the Mojave yucca (Yucca schidigera) sends up a blunt flower stalk of white, waxy blossoms from the same base -- a rosette of dagger-like leaves. The shimmering white exclamation point that unfolds above "Our Lord's Candle" (Yucca whipplei), on the other hand, is a prelude to the plant's imminent death. Mojave yucca is widely distributed along San Diego County's coastal strip and throughout the higher elevations of the Anza-Borrego Desert. Our Lord's Candle prefers the scrubby coastal foothills and the drier slopes of the Palomar, Cuyamaca, and Laguna mountains. The two yuccas coexist with each other in a few areas like Torrey Pines State Reserve and Anza-Borrego's Culp Valley area.

India Hawthorn, one of the most common flowering shrubs used in landscaping as hedges and dividers in San Diego, is blooming best right about now. The plant, which has several varieties, covers itself with blossoms ranging in hue from pinkish white to vivid pink.

The Big Dipper, an abbreviated version of the larger constellation known as Ursa Major (the Great Bear), hovers nearly straight overhead during evening hours from March through June. The seven stars of the dipper -- all but one classified as "second magnitude" in brightness -- can be distinctly seen on clear evenings, even from light-polluted city locations. The two stars at the end of the bowl of the Big Dipper point downward toward a lone, second-magnitude star: Polaris, the North Star, which perpetually marks the direction of true north.

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