Winter Delights: Signs of Life In the Season of Death
January 3, 2021
I hope by the end of reading this post that you will want to rush outside to see what is happening. Winter is generally a time of dormancy and death in the plant world, and yet a precious few plants can be found blooming and thriving in December and January.
Hellebores are an enchanting, toxic plant that was supposedly used with success to poison the water supply in the Siege of Kirrha in Greece in 585 BC. This was the first record of chemical warfare in history. Needless to say, this is not an edible.
Some species of hellebores bloom in the dead of winter, like this one that I encountered at the Bellevue Botanical Gardens (BBG) today. Those pink petals are actually sepals, much like dogwood flowers. The actual petals are yellow and tubular, which is where the nectar hides, probably because it needs to be able to shelter it from rain.
Our native Anemone occidentalis (also in the buttercup family) is similar to Hellebore in that the flowers nearly burst forth the second the snow melts enough for them to wake up. Plants have complex sensory systems that tell them when to flower, which include at least 20 different variables including temperature, moisture and air pressure. Like in any game of stakes, each plant draws its bid differently in order to try to get an edge that allows them to survive.
Blooming in the winter can be an advantage, for gaining sunlight in a shaded forest and winning visits from pollinators. There are certain pollinators who can survive the cold and brave the winter weather for these flowers! All that and they have lots of time for their seeds to develop.
Witch hazel (the genus Hamamelis spp.) also blooms in the dead of winter, almost to be missed because of the funny shape of their petals. Pictured is a delightful ornamental species I caught today in full bloom at the BBG with beautiful deep red flowers. The liquid "witch hazel" from stores is traditionally made by steam distilling the leaves and branches. The resulting plant steam is astringent and excellent for irritations and inflammations of the skin. You could make your own witch hazel by throwing some in your still!
The "witch" in witch hazel does not come from the english word "witch", but rather from an old english word that means pliant or bendable.
I highly recommend getting a witch hazel tree for your yard. They don't get very big throughout their lives, and they remind you that not all hope is lost in the wintertime.
The genus Mahonia (which has recently been changed to Berberis) also blooms very early. This cultivated species from the BBG was also blooming all over the place today. Oregon grape (one common name of the genus) has bright yellow bark that is used medicinally, and this cultivated species would probably make excellent medicine, if only I could be present on pruning day. I sometimes like to snack on a few flower buds, which are very sour and astringent, but very tender). These flowers will later turn into berries, which make delicious but very sour jelly.
Can you even believe that Mahonia nervosa (low oregon grape) survives in PNW forest understories?! It's so wet and dark under there that it really takes a specialist for the job. I'd definitely put this on the list of Winter Warriors.
Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta) was also at the beginning of its steamy pollination process today, with the male catkins opening up and dangling happily from the branches in the otherwise dead understory. Once the catkins are out in full force and the pollen sacks have burst, the much less obvious female flowers will open up and get it on.
I felt inspired to write this post to show you the value of a good winter walk, despite the weather. It's amazing to visit some of your favorite spots in a more sedated season to see a different side, and different life happening. Where is your favorite winter walk place?
All the best,
The Adiantum School of Plant Medicine