Although the days are getting longer, signs of winter are still all around. Orion with his three-star belt dominates the southern sky each night. The weather is dismal and although it’s mild, it surely couldn’t be wetter. The trees are dark latticeworks of leafless branches and there are few flowers to add colour to this landscape of greens and browns. But there are things to see if we take time to look.
So, each morning as I peer through the kitchen window, my gaze is taken by three silver birch trees in the Leechwell Garden. They seem impossibly tall and vulnerable and on several occasions I expected to find them felled by high winds. But they are still there, standing close together, and with their brown and white dappled bark I have come to imagine them as a family of giraffes, two adults and a calf.
I also see the three Portland stone columns of the Garden sculpture. On a dull day, the stone appears pale grey, but in sunshine it takes on a light honey tone as well as texture from shadows given by neighbouring trees. When I go down to the Garden and stand by the sculpture, the stone seems whiter and I can see the detail that the artist, Rosie Musgrave, has incorporated. Each column is about two metres tall and has its own character expressed in the design carved along its length and in its distinctive head. The sculpture is named the Three Guardians and the columns represent the three water sources of the Leechwell and their local names, the Toad, the Snake and the Long Crippler (slow worm).
Not far from the sculpture are the remains of an old tree. Its wood is saturated and very dark and, lying on the ground, the gigantic trunk looks sad, out of place, like a beached whale. At least the tree-remnant is serving a purpose, as a children’s play area. Along the trunk I notice repeated lines of grey and yellow as if it had been spray-painted. This is in fact a spectacular display of fungus encouraged by the mild damp weather. Row upon row of small, semicircular, feathery brackets cover large sections of the old tree. Some are superficially grey but a closer look reveals concentric rings with different shades of grey and white. On another part of the wood the fungus is a bright yellow/orange.
In the herb garden there are green leaves in many shades but few flowers. One exception is a lungwort which seems to have chosen to come in to flower early, perhaps to salute the mild weather; it will not fare well if the weather turns cold. Among the oval, dark green, white-spotted leaves, one flower stem was standing carrying two lipstick-pink flowers; many buds were also waiting to take their turn. The name, lungwort, arose because the spotted leaves were once thought to resemble diseased lungs and the plant came to be used in folk medicine for treating respiratory problems.
I‘m rather fond of lungwort as it’s very popular with bees later in the year so I spent some time looking and didn’t immediately notice the small tree behind me. Its leafless branches were covered with spidery eruptions of fine sulphur-yellow petals. These resemble the outpourings of small fireworks only the petals look slightly crumpled as though they are made from paper. This striking tree is witch hazel (hamamelis), a native of North America, known for its sweet spicy fragrance and very early flowering. The famous early 20th century gardener E A Bowles nicknamed it the Epiphany flower as it is usually out by then (January 6) with flowers of gold, and scent of frankincense. Some of the flowers will produce seed capsules which mature during the following growth season to expel their seeds explosively several metres away.
Water from the Leechwell cascades through the Garden under a bridge and through a pool before descending under some new houses. Mostly, the water flows rather briskly but there are a few places where it is still. It was very early in the year so I was surprised to find several thick clumps of frogspawn here, for the most part under the water. As I watched, the clumps of jelly moved rhythmically backwards and forwards following the breeze and the gentle flow of the water as if the clump were alive. But of course it is alive; despite appearing superficially amorphous and colourless the frogspawn contains thousands of individual jelly compartments each with a black dot. This is the growing embryo that has the potential to become a tadpole and then a frog. The frogspawn also reminds me that a male frog has been here with a female. In the frog mating embrace, or amplexus, the male straddles the female, gripping behind her front legs. She lays thousands of eggs and he fertilises them as they emerge.
Perhaps we should learn from the frogs. It may feel to us like a low time of year with little sunshine and record rainfall. The frogs show us that nature doesn’t stop, it’s always in flux. The new season will come and there will be renewal.
All photos were taken on January 25th with the exception of the the Three Silver Birches which was taken on February 1st.
Leechwell Garden posted some photos on February 5th (see here if you do Facebook) and the progress the Lungwort has made is surprising, I suppose it’s the mild weather)