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  • Glynis Roache

Beating The Winter Blues

Updated: Mar 2

"February fill the dyke be it black or be it white: 

 But if it be white, It’s the better to like."

An old rhyme that, in spite of its rather idiosyncratic punctuation, still holds true in Britain. Precipitation of one sort or another typifies February. The dykes are either full of water or full of snow. This is the sort of weather that fails to provide a post Christmas uplift sufficiently powerful to counteract the ballast of too much TV, too much chocolate and too much time spent checking phones and sharing updates in a compulsive need to stay connected. It sometimes seems that we’ll connect with anything and everything but the things that would really make us feel better.    

      Since the year 2000, we have apparently been designated an urban species. I’m not certain by whom, because we did not evolve in high rises. We have biophilic minds, an inherent inclination to affiliate with the natural world. Looking at views of nature stimulates more of our visual cortex than does looking at cityscapes because nature is the habitat in which we lived for millennia whilst we developed into this innovative, empathetic and self-evaluating species that can’t stay away from its various electrical devices. Consequently, it is now of no relevance to us that we can distinguish more variations of the colour green than we can variations of any other colour, and that we are more uplifted in terms of health and mood by a walk in the countryside than by recirculating money in shopping centres.

    The very process of opening all our senses to the sights and sounds of the natural world is more than exercise - it is an uplifting reconnection with our natural habitat. And in a country where we are unlikely to be eaten - even by that big phantom cat that is apparently prowling the length and breadth of the place - we should maybe give it a try. 

      The Japanese have raised ‘Shinrin-yoku’, forest bathing, to the level of medicine. Their scientific catalogue of its benefits includes a measurable boost in immune response, a reduction in circulating stress hormones, a lowering of blood pressure and an elevation of mood. 

      Coincident with this concept of ‘forest medicine’, there has been some revision of the original idea that we developed from bipedal strollers on savannahs. It turns out to be more than likely that Trees “R” Us.

        Of course, we don’t have a forest at Showborough but we do have a couple of areas with trees. This morning, the rain finally eased and a watery sun made an effort to shine. I doubted that it would prevail for long enough to allow a relaxing mini-forest bathe of any significance so I settled for taking a quick snuff of phytoncides. Phytoncides are active substances created by trees to help prevent rotting or being eaten by some of the insects, animals and fungi that attack them. (Sorry, the science is strong with me today.) Research has discovered that they also have a beneficial effect on people when they are breathed in.  I didn’t think it would be beyond me to inhale something potentially beneficial at the same time as enjoying the hellebores. I can walk and chew gum with the most accomplished of bipeds.

    Hellebores are one of the great joys of this time of year, not least because they flower for so long. Of course, snowdrops are a brief but necessary beauty, luminescent amidst last year‘s dead leaves, and who doesn’t love the primrose? More especially when you know that, if you pick a bunch of primroses and tap it on a nearby rock, you can open the door to fairyland. Unfortunately, as is always the case with fairies, there’s a catch. You have to have exactly the right number of primroses in the bunch. Even then … remember what happened to Thomas the Rhymer? All things considered, trips to fairyland are a more hazardous business than a bit of forest bathing. You should catch up on your folklore before you contemplate taking one.

     Hellebores offer no promise of fairyland. On the other hand, they might kill you if you eat them (which makes them admirably, even loveably, more rabbit and deer proof than a lot of plants). But just picking a bunch is not fraught with the hazards of being seduced into accepting boons from fairies. In fact, in medieval times, they were considered a weapon against witches, madness and evil spirits. There is the possibility of a bit of dermatitis if you’re sensitive, but you could wear gloves when picking/handling. If you want the entire plant you must, like the ancient Greeks, cut carefully round it with a sword and throw in a prayer to Apollo & Co before lifting. In our experience, you’ll be fine with just gloves and a decent spade.

       Mostly, hellebores are of a size to afford relief to those of us with stiff backs and encroaching visual challenges. I was forcibly acquainted with this point as I tried to get familiar with an oxlip that was just opening in the same area. Oxlips are native to East Anglia. Our little patch of them, specially planted, has hardly run riot but it has survived for fifteen years at least and it gives me great, if creaky, pleasure to reacquaint myself with it each spring.

       Native plants hold a certain sway with me, and Helleborus foetidus is a native. The foetid aspect is not evident unless you crush the leaves. Even en masse, it doesn’t scent the air. It also seeds around and the sometimes clustered seedlings/young plants are robust and amenable to being dug up and grown on in 9cm pots. Plants are becoming more and more expensive - understandably so, given the overheads - and this is an economical way to populate a strip of light woodland or an area under a tree. Mix with some Luzula sylvatica which is a sturdy, clumping, evergreen grass (technically a rush) and Polystichum or Dryopteris ferns. Polystichums are effectively ‘winter green’. To maintain their aesthetic effect for as long as possible, take off the old fronds sequentially as they turn brown and remove the rest in spring when the new crosiers are pushing through. Herrenhausen and Wollaston are reliable varieties of Polystichum setiferum but P. setiferum Pulcherrimum Bevis, slightly harder to find, reigns supreme for me. Its winter resilience is such that it is frequently classed as evergreen. We also have Polystichum polyblepharum, which has an AGM and is classed by some as the best ‘evergreen’ Polystichum, but it tends to ‘burn’ a little here and needs a more protected site than those mentioned above.

     BelowThe indestructibility of Luzula sylvatica Starmaker : self-seeded into a piece of log and determinedly flourishing on fresh air and excitement.(photo 26 Feb)

H. foetidus Wester Flisk Group (originating from the banks of Scotland’s Tay river) has strikingly red-tinted stems and leaf stalks with greyish-green leaves. This adds a little more pizzazz to a plant whose flowers are basically pale green but, if you want even more colour, it has to be the Lenten rose. It is sometimes misnamed H. orientalis but it’s officially Helleborus x hybridus because its genetics are mixed. As more or less promised by the name, there are many selections, all very lovely. But unnamed, seed grown ones from a market stall, or raised from cheap plugs, will still look great. For me, H. x hybridus with its mix of harmonising colours sits well amongst ferns and luzula to provide a basic underplanting that, once established, is capable of surviving remarkable levels of neglect and climate stress as well as being effective year round. Mulching helps - we use 50/50 rotted manure and our own chipped bark. 

     They are long lived plants - unless you get hellebore black death which is caused by a virus. We had it in a couple but that was fifteen years ago and it hasn’t reared its head again. Nothing like the ongoing aggravation that is box blight. 

      Just over a year ago, I treated myself to an expensive selection of the H. x hybridus type. I say ‘type’ in this instance because it has a slightly blue cast to its bigger leaves (see the crosses mentioned below) and more outward facing flower heads which distinguish it from any other  x hybridus that we have. It’s called 'Ice n' Roses Merlot' and is from the Helleborus Gold Collection (HGC) developed by Heugers of Germany. ‘Merlot’ cost eighteen pounds but it was already a substantial plant. It is stunning and I have it in a pot, part of an uplifting spring tableau outside the French door to the sitting room.

Thinking of black death syndrome brought me to a consideration of Helleborus niger, the Christmas rose. Though white, it is known as the black hellebore because it has black roots. Less flamboyant than the Lenten rose, it flowers earlier but the ones we have don’t flower for Christmas. I see that the Hellebore Gold Collection includes some handsome looking selections which are supposed to do just that. As a rule, I don’t get too excited by flowers for Christmas. Yuletide is the season of the Holly King and he doesn’t like usurpers. On the other hand, according to several folklore sources, the Christmas rose sprang from the tears of a little girl who wept when she visited the Christ child because she couldn’t afford to bring him a gift. And a story like that needs a plant to go with it. So, next year …

    We also have H. argutifolius, otherwise known as H. corsicus because of its origins. It has big, jagged-edged leaves so is sometimes referred to the holly-leaved hellebore. I doubt the Holly King would approve. It is a tallish plant which flops with us but it does a long stint from January onwards and was a Beth Chatto favourite, so perhaps we don’t treat it or site it well enough. 

     It has been crossed with H. niger to produce H x nigercors and its ‘holly’ leaves are still recognisable in H. x ericsmithii which incorporates touches of it and H. lividus as well. It could account for the leaves of ‘Merlot’. We have a few of the H x ericsmithii types, specifically ’Bob’s Best’, which we got years ago from Bob Brown of Cotswold Garden Flowers near Evesham. They are good, reliable plants and they enabled us to ring the changes a little in terms of design. Of more recency, Heugers seem to have really run with this type of hybridisation.

     Having, hopefully, inhaled a smattering of phytoncides during my enjoyment of the various hellebores, and reflected on the fact  that the Romans and Greeks used the roots of H. niger to treat the sort of people who wander around with a headful of randomly combined Latin nomenclature, science and fairies, I thought I’d re-establish sanity by visiting the polytunnels. 

      The route took me through the potager and I noticed a sign that we have hanging above the tools in the open shed:

          ‘All my hurts, my garden spade can heal’ - Thoreau.

       Given the thrust of Thoreau’s reflections on his time spent in the rural fastness of Walden Pond - a self inflicted sojourn in nature that sustained his spirit while he lived on what he grew, I was put in mind of something that happens when the spade goes into the ground - the release of the smell of geosmin, especially if it’s just rained.

       The smell of the soil was first investigated in 1891 and the main compound giving rise to it was finally isolated in 1965 by Gerber and Lechevalier, who named it “geosmin” (“Geo”= Earth; “Osme” = Odour). Gerber elucidated its chemical structure in 1968.  It has a pungent odour and a diverse range of animals are surprisingly sensitive to it. It has been reported that humans can detect 100 parts in a trillion.

       For many years, the exact source of geosmin remained a mystery but when the genome of Streptomyces coelicolor A3(2) was sequenced in 2002 - a project driven by Sir David Hopwood of the John Innes Centre - geosmin was shown to be of bacterial origin. 

       Most people seem to derive a positive effect from its smell  - a response that is convincing enough to merit its inclusion in some perfumes. The effect is, as with ‘forest bathing’, probably influenced by a combination of evolutionary, psychological, cultural, and personal factors but, in short, it is the vitality of life flowing back into things.

      And there are times when we all need a bit of vicariously acquired vitality. My inherent interest in nature and plants was channelled into gardening by one of my husband’s aunts who was a farmer’s wife. She called in one day, bringing homemade clotted cream, and found me rather less than vitalised - or even in control. Andrew and I had not long bought our first house - a sixteenth century Devon longhouse of stone and cob with a tin roof and creaking timbers that were probably from old sailing ships. It was a direct labour renovation project fraught with dodgy plumbers and elusive electricians. With the unplanned and entirely shocking embellishment of twin baby boys.

       The aunt was convinced that my salvation lay in the additional chore of digging a vegetable garden. I protested that life was already hectic enough between unreliable artisans, screaming babies and Andrew doing eighty hours a week in the local veterinary practice. Not to mention his twice weekly all-nighters when I functioned as a telephone receptionist (no mobiles then) frantically re-contacting farmers in the hope of getting new calls passed on to him whilst I simultaneously fed said babies and tried to get them back to sleep. Did I need more to do?

      Yes, said the aunt. Because in a vegetable garden, it was possible to know what organisation was. Things had their season and they could be organised, arranged, cultivated. The wheat could be separated from the tares. Of course the weather wasn't always cooperative, but with a bit of careful attention and a well-trained hand you could get everything almost as it should be. The problems were real but they were bounded. And so they could be solved. And the resulting order was soothing, comforting. You couldn't get everything to go right in this world, but some things you could. You could always plough a straight furrow if you tried hard enough. And a person who felt immersed in chaos, needed things like that. Things that could be lined up. 

    And this morning, as I moved on past the open shed and entered the polytunnels to survey the rows of young plants - hardy annuals like cornflowers, echiums, calendulas, sown last September so they would bloom early for us and our visitors, plus the young perennials sown last spring, linarias, dianthus, arenarias, arabis - all ready for final hardening off and planting out, I could see that Andrew’s old aunt was right. There is a distinct and soothing pleasure that derives from tending things that can be lined up.

    I came back to the house fortified by nature, blues lifted and excited about the March and April planting . 


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