This week we have been part of an almost imperceptible shift, but one that registers deeply. We have tipped the mid-way between the winter equinox and the spring solstice, and the light is finally on our side. In sun that fingers over the hill before coffee time and in the weight of darkness that is now in retreat. Afternoons that are no longer curtailed by gloom and evenings that start at six make all the difference in how we use the day.
Just a week ago the snowdrops down by the stream were barely nosing through leaf mould. Visible only when you walked amongst them as clutched fingers holding tightly onto buds, the growth has been slow and epitomised my yearning for movement. But this first week of February their energy has been on the move, the flowers pushed and all at once luminous so that you can see them as you look down from the house. A bright ribbon that represents hours of obsessive dividing and imagining this very break on winter’s hold. I followed the trail from the lowest point in our land just this morning, walking upstream, with the light behind me to show them at their best and planned this year’s divisions that can now begin to extend its reach and influence upon the season.
It is hard to measure this good feeling, but it is all-encompassing to be part of the change. Just a week ago the Cornus mas that stood darkly on the banks of the ditch broke bud. Thousands of tiny flowers of the richest green-gold. Hard to read at first but, like a murmuration, their quantity contributes to a whole. Beyond the confines of the garden I prefer the Cornelian cherry to witch hazel, as it assimilates so easily amongst the similar outlines of hawthorn and wild plum. You have to find it rather than it declaring itself and, when you do, it brings joy.
The pussy willows make equally gentle bridges between the garden and what lies beyond. The tiny catkins of Salix purpurea, our native Purple Osier are the first to appear here. S. p. ‘Howkii’, a named form with finely spun wands of growth, is the first into flower and you notice the movement when the shrubs become pink with a mass of mouse-coloured catkin. We have the charcoal coloured Salix gracilistyla ‘Melanostachys’ to shield the garden from the drive and, as this is a plant we pass every day, it needs to be personable and interesting.
The winter-flowering iris have been hit more than once this year. By deluge and by freeze and by both more than once, but the flowers return in the interludes of better weather. Spears buried deep in foliage that give away little of their presence until they are suddenly in evidence. Iris unguicularis ‘Lucien’ sits close to the black catkinnned willow, but out in the full sunshine, where its Algerian heritage appreciates a baking. I was always taught to cut the strappy evergreen foliage hard back in the autumn to free the flowers up, but I like to see them sitting as they should be. Their out of season delicacy caught in the tatter of winter foliage. One season contrasted against the other.
Iris lazica, a cousin that prefers shade, is altogether smarter with glossy, green foliage and neater flowers that tuck themselves amongst it. The wet weather has seen their sky-blue flowers damaged by slugs, whilst the freeze has withered the flowers of the Algerian Iris. Between the two of them it is good to have both sun and shade covered and, in the interludes between extremes, they push new spears and do their very best, to remind you all is well.
The bulbs are also responding to the light. Pot grown Iris reticulata and this delightful hoop petticoat daffodil, Narcissus bulbocodium ‘Mary Poppins’. A selection that needs baking in summer and pot culture rather than a place in our heavy ground, but a few bulbs in the frame bring so much pleasure for the effort. Some stems of a self-sown hellebore that has appeared in the gravel path beside the veranda pick up on this favourite citrus primrose yellow, which is so cheering when brought into the house.
I keep an inner circuit of special galanthus within the orbit of the garden to mark their difference from the ‘wild’ snowdrops on the trails. We have three in this group to enjoy their differences. The extremely long pedicels of the aptly named Galanthus elwesii ‘Fly Fishing’ is a favourite for its grace and movement. In flower now since Christmas, I am slowly splitting them so that they form a dancing skirt under the hotly coloured Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Gingerbread’.
Galanthus ‘Lapwing’ is particular for its unusual inner markings, like arms crossed or a skull and cross bones, which on a warm day are revealed when the outer petals fling themselves back to celebrate. Galanthus ‘Trumps’ is distinctive for the green blotch on its outer petals which are slightly rolled and splay outwards. It is all about the detail with the ‘specials’ but they also need to be dependable in this all important hinge of the seasons.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 4 February 2023