Imagine what it must have been like for the early humans when the light decreased each day in November and December. If they were anything like me, they would have worried that the light was disappearing forever. What a relief, then, to see that beginning on what we now call the winter solstice, each day the light expanded a little until afternoons stretched out into the deliciously long sunny evenings of summer.
Like so many aspects of life, absence reminds us how precious are the small daily pleasures, like brightness and color. Winter is a fluctuating season in the Pacific Northwest, with occasional balmy, spring-like days; it teases us with warmth one day and downpours the next. A roller coaster of rain and sun, of mild and chilly, winter forces us to become flexible, to grab the moment, to celebrate whatever comes our way.
Sometimes, though, I just can't wait for spring to arrive. Any plant in bloom will help me through - at the grocery store, orchids with burgundy and yellow spotted flowers were so uplifting that I grabbed one for our Thanksgiving table. Still blooming heartily in mid-December, the plant cheers me up immensely.
Recently, I was mesmerized by dozens of pink Florist's Cyclamen (Cyclamen persicum), perched on the benches of my neighborhood garden center. Stopping for a closer look, I got a whiff of sweet perfume that brought back a flood of memories. The scent was identical to the cyclamens blooming on the hillsides of Jerusalem when I was a student there in 1960. Back came my adventurous year - hitchhiking all over the country, swimming in the dead sea, and sleeping beneath the star-studded desert sky before climbing Masadah at dawn with a group of fellow students. Not the least bit athletic, I hiked to the top by sheer determination, clinging to rope banisters - those were the days before you could drive up.
All these memories returned with one inhalation of cyclamen scent. Beyond its immediate pleasure, fragrance gives us back our past. It's the same when I cut a lemon open - I'm reminded of my favorite Aunt Libby, who always smelled of lemony Jean Nate After Bath Splash.
In winter, the smallest flowers are welcome. Small, pink, clove-scented blossoms light up the branches of 'Dawn' viburnum like confetti, from fall into winter, while the white and pink flowers of Sasanqua camellias bloom like tiny roses. Several Sasanquas stand along the fence-lines of my garden, beneath the canopy of trees, and also against the hut - all places where the early flowers are sheltered from wind and rain.
Soon the twisted ribbons of yellow and red witch hazels will open, sending their mild perfume into the air. These are best seen against the dark needles of conifers, or backlit by the fleeting afternoon sun.
Hot pink hardy cyclamen flowers (Cylamen coum) now flame above their marbled green leaves. Last year, a neighbor gave me a generous flat of her extras, and now they light up the shade beds. A few have even bloomed white, very welcome in dark places. Young lungwort (Pulmonaria) leaves, spotted silver, also decorate the ground. Before long their blue, pink and white flowers will appear above the leaves.
As I cut back the old, spent leaves of hellebores, the tiny pink and white buds resting at ground level remind me that soon they will rise up to bloom once more. I have plenty of wine, pink, white and spotted hellebore hybrids, some single and a few double. But there's always room for more varieties, with hybridizers working like crazy to tempt us.
This winter I received a wonderful holiday gift - a new hellebore called 'Cinnamon Snow.' Part of the Gold Collection, bred by Heuger Nursery in Germany, the flowers are creamy white and face out so I can enjoy them without kneeling down. The handsome leaves are a rich dark shade of green, with red tints on the stems. 'Cinnamon' describes the flush of dark red on the outside of the pink buds.
Hybridizers Ernie and Marietta O'Byrne of Northwest Garden Nursery in Eugene (www.northwestgardennursery.com) have stirred up cravings in me for even more of their choice hellebores, especially yellow singles. Last year on a visit to their nursery I noticed how the yellow flowers made the black, pink, and wine hellebores pop. You can visit their website to learn about retail outlets carrying their new hybrids, and also sign up to be notified about their 2011 Hellebore Open Days. I can hardly wait!