The promise of spring
Watch the tiny buds burst forth. By Stephanie Donaldson
Even in the coldest, darkest months of the year we can look forward to the dawn of a new season. Delight in the first awakenings as tiny buds burst forth and miniature leaves unfurl revealing the treasures of the new year.
One moment the earth is brown, bare and devoid of life, the next something catches the eye and there, defying the cold and pushing its way towards the light, is a delicate green shoot. It seems far too fragile to survive the hostile conditions yet, as you look around, you realise that it is not alone.
Overhead, twigs and branches are flushing with colour, buds are fattening and there is the happy realisation that winter is on the wane. We may still be dithering about whether to put on an extra jumper but, enlivened by rising sap, plants are abandoning caution and poking their heads above their protective blankets.
It is said that if you visit the forcing sheds of the Rhubarb Triangle in Yorkshire you can hear the creaking and crackling of the leaves as they unfurl, such is the speed and power of the growth. With more acute hearing, something similar might be heard in our own gardens as the fat green hosta shoots pierce the soil, glaucous spears of Solomon's seal rise upwards and glossy, wine-red peony buds erupt from the ground.
It won't be long before the entire garden bursts into life, but in the meantime, you can revel in the details. Focus on the miraculous variety on offer by using a pocket lens and you will discover a world of wonders. It seems that every plant has its own unique way of coming back to life. Lens in hand, you will experience colours and textures unseen to the naked eye. The deep magenta petals of Hamamelis x intermedia Jelena', the miniature cauliflower-like buds of an emerging thalictrum or the Lilliputian bunches of grapes that will become the dangling flower heads on Ribes sanguineum - the flowering currant.
These delicate beauties contrast with the pushy individuals that grow at enormous speed; the hostas and peonies will be joined later in spring by the extraordinary red-scaled flowering spike of the beschorneria, which emerges like a snake's head from among its yucca-type foliage. Then there are the precocious flowerers, the plants that prefer to flower without the competition of emerging leaves. The word precocious' is from the same root as praecox' - the Latin word used in botanical nomenclature as an indicator that a plant is early to flower. Long before the leaves appear, the furry flower capsules of magnolias split open to reveal immaculate blooms and the bare inky branches of the blackthorn are suddenly transformed, studded with bead-like white buds that will soon smother the tree in a snowstorm of blossom.
The Persian ironwood tree Parrotia persica may be best known for its autumn colour, yet early in the year it reveals itself as a relative of the witch hazel with spidery clusters of cerise flowers. Others, such as the witch hazel, sarcococca, winter-flowering honeysuckle, wintersweet and early daphnes, seduce by scent, releasing piercingly sweet fragrances to perfume the air. Although few pollinating insects are abroad, what they lose in numbers, they gain from lack of competition. When a sunny winter day brings out solitary bumblebees, they follow the fragrance trail to visit these flowers. Any winter garden is enhanced by planting something fragrant, even if it is no more than a pot of Sarcococca hookeriana - also known as sweet or Christmas box. Be sure to position a winter-flowering plant close to a door, window or path, so you don't miss its moment of glory.
One of the treasures of the winter garden is the hellebore, with its gently nodding heads in colours that range from purest white to near black. Although they can be slow to establish, once happy in their habitat they will self-seed readily and can be transplanted around the garden, ideally in good soil beneath deciduous trees and shrubs. If the temptation to pick hellebore flowers and bring them indoors is irresistible, try plunging the cut stems immediately into a bucket of water that has cut flower food added to it. Recent research suggests that this is an effective way of avoiding their rapid wilting. Another charmer that will pop up all over the late winter garden is the aquilegia, an invaluable companion to bulbs and hellebores. It shoots up with astonishing rapidity, spreading a tiered skirt of foliage that is soon topped by flower stems.
At this time of year, your garden is a gallery of miniatures: from a distance its treasures are unobtrusive and easily overlooked, but close examination reveals a world of extraordinary beauty.