Winter is often described as somber, dull, dreary, endless, best to avoid by staying inside and warm. The brief days and persistent nights can make us feel depressed, especially during this year of a terrible global pandemic. Maybe I’m a bit daft to love this season, but I find that winter’s magic and majesty lays in its details, hints, and flora that come into their full glory when everything else sleeps, moves south, or dies.
In winter, our eye is not overwhelmed. The stage is cleared, the deciduous trees sleep, raising their naked limbs to the sky as if in prayer, exposing last year’s tumble of nests. The flash and dazzle of annual plants are well gone with the first cold snap or frost, leaving their carapace of dead leaves and stems.
I can hear the territorial calls of the great horned owl, one close, one farther away, a pattern of three or four hoots in the darkness. The rain beats harder, the wind jostles the walls.
With the sun skimming the edge of the sky, one can enter an intricate world of pattern and texture in a snowflake, catch sight of the crimson, glistening berries of the holly, nandina, and other shrubs that intoxicate winter birds. With global warming, spring bulbs come earlier and earlier, elbowing their way into winter.
At last, it’s the time for the delicate and perfect white of a winter-flowering camellia, the time for the floating, buttery flowers of witch hazel, the time of the other-worldly hellebores. I have waited and almost forgotten them.
Native to Europe and Asia, hellebores (with 20 species or so) are a poisonous member of the buttercup family with a rich history back to ancient Greece, when hellebores were called Melampodium, after the physician Melampus who used it to cure King Argos’ daughter of madness. The plant has also been used in Medieval rites of exorcism, banishment, and protection.
The plant produces what looks like individual flowers, drooping downward as if bashful, but these are actually sepals that enclose the petals and protect the true flowers, which are at the center. The sepals are showy and come in a wide range of colors including purple, pink, green, yellow, white and black. Hellebores has been known as the “Christmas Rose”, but they are not a rose at all.
In my garden, I have a shady slope that is perfect for hellebores, and I can easily see their subtle colors, that linger throughout winter into early spring. And I can admire them when I wake up, outside the glass doors, in all their glory, lifting my spirit, reminding to truly look and be grateful for this moment.