Plants to celebrate the Light of Winter

I am impatiently awaiting 21 December, the winter solstice that marks the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. Although I am not a Druid or a hippy, the solstice feels almost more important that Christmas. The two festivals are in fact deeply connected, as it turns out that many of our Christmas traditions originated in pagan rituals to mark this great big turning point of the year.

Scandanavians, for example, lit fires to symbolise the heat, light and life-giving properties of the returning sun. It was Thor’s job to bring the sun back, and the Yule log was burnt to honour him. I also like the Alban Arthan, what might be the oldest seasonal festival celebrated by humans. Alban Arthan is Welsh for ‘Light of Winter’, and in the Druid tradition the solistice marks the moment when the old sun dies, and the new sun of the new year is born. It was thought of as a time of renewal for the powers of nature, and for our souls.

If you’re already wondering what this has to do with gardening, here’s the point: even at a rather dismal, dreary time of year, and even in a small-ish suburban garden in Brussels, there are signs of renewal, rebirth and even beauty. Here are some of the plants that seem to reflect Alban Arthan, the Light of Winter:

First up, the hazel tree, Corylus avellana, which has been busy growing its catkins. These are still stiff and lime green in their infancy, and will mature to lovely cascading mustard-yellow tassles as the new year gets underway. They will then release great quantities of pollen into the wind, and the female flowers will open. You can see the tiny but plump buds at the nodes of the stem where these will appear.

So the hazel is harnessing all of its energy to prepare for a new season. This year, quite a few leaves still remain on the tree, which is surprising because the branches are normally bare by now. It means that we still can’t see directly into our neighbours’ bedroom window: things to be grateful for!

It’s not a floriferous time in the garden, and nor should it be, but for Viburnum farreri this is the time to reproduce. Its sweet but unobtrusive flowers look best I think when this deciduous shrub has lost all of its leaves. Then they seemingly hang in mid-air. Occasionally, you get a whiff of sweet perfume, as this is how they attract the few pollinators that are about at this time of year.

The flowers look especially good against the copper background of a beech hedge. I think it’s a nice shrub to have in a quiet part of the garden. It’s not going to steal the show, but it’s tough and trouble-free, and when in leaf makes a nice dense screen of leaves (yes, this too helps obscure the neighbour’s bedroom!)

Other things are quietly afoot too. The ivy buds are swelling and ripening, and will provide welcome food for the birds as they do so. Where did I read that ivy berries contain as many calories as a bar of chocolate? Actually I think it might have been a tip from a wildlife gardener on the recent winter edition of Gardener’s World. Well as you can see, there’s plenty of ivy and berries growing here on what looks like a small tree in next door’s front garden. It’s actually a lilac almost entirely smothered by ivy, but believe it or not, each year the lilac flowers emerge to flower from this mass of foliage. I think it’s made a boring tree more interesting!

More food for the birds and maybe a few mammals on Ilex aquifolium, the holly. I am relieved that 1. we have a female plant that produces berries as the males do not and 2. I caught the gardener who over-enthusiastically prunes everything along the boundary just before he made a mess of things. I picked a few clusters for Christmas decorations, which I’ll show you on this week’s Six on Saturday if you fancy a peek.

Still on the bird food theme, the parakeets are back and seem to enjoy the seeds of Carpinus betulus, the hornbeam. They have been nibbling away at them, hopefully reducing the number of seeds that drop down to germinate along our front path. These birds are an ‘invasive species’ and we are told that is a bad thing, but I’m softening in my attitude towards them as they bring welcome colour and clamour during winter. After all, everything in this post is an invasive species since the last ice age, it’s just a question of time.

So there is life and promise, and I tell you something, the brilliant blue sky really helped – I haven’t seen it since taking these photos last Saturday, which might be why I am obsessing over the solstice! I’ll end with a few photos of little details that caught my eye and seem to have something of the Light of Winter about them.

18 thoughts on “Plants to celebrate the Light of Winter

  1. Thanks for explaining about the solstice. I’m always looking forward for this moment. At the same time it reminds me that once again a year has past away…. Time flies.
    How wonderful to see how nature is already preparing for the new season to come but first it has to survive the winter season.
    Have a lovely december month with lots of joy and happiness to you an all your beloved ones.

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  2. Nothing makes me happier than to see a blue sky during the autumn and winter months. Sadly lacking here at the moment. And I shall also be celebrating the coming solstice! Much more than Christmas.

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    1. Yes me too, bring me more blue sky! It’s totally transformative. Hope you get some soon and enjoy your forthcoming solstice, I feel that I want to mark it in a more formal way – perhaps I should go to our nearest Neolithic site in the forest 😉

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      1. That would be good! Also a few dry days as it can be awfully muddy during the winter and wellies are not the most comfortable footwear to walk in.

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  3. I have always had the shortest day as a pivotal point in my mind. I too count the days down. I have been watching the ivy berries ripen here and wondering if the birds ate them. I have a new respect for ivy as one of my favourite bees, the Ivy bee, is nesting in my garden and now knowing the birds eat the berries makes all the difference. I have been taking the ivy off our trees at the bottom of the garden but now it is going to be left. Less work too! I love the close-up of the flower head of the Hydrangea. Amelia

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    1. How lovely to have nesting ivy bees. Where do they nest by the way? I had some bumblebees nesting in my leaf mould pile but unfortunately I may have disturbed them. I too used to be less keen on ivy but now I treasure it.

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      1. The Ivy bees nest in the ground usually in colonies. This year I discovered a few nesting in a part of my vegetable garden. I have marked the spot and I will not disturb this area and watch to see if they come out when the ivy flowers.

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  4. I enjoyed reading about winter and it’s joys. Light does make a difference the Hindu festive of holi were little candles lit on all paths does show the way. I have just put some in the back garden. It is cheery enjoy the season.

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  5. Blue sky is scarce here too Sel, but you managed to capture lots of lovely light in your photos. I am also looking forward to the solstice, although I know it will be a couple of weeks before we notice any change in the amount of light. I love the anceint pagan traditions with holly and ivy, yule logs, candles and so on. Our hazels are way behind yours this year, with hardly a catkin to see yet. Something to look forward too though. 😃

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