Written by Heather Elvidge
Sharp frosts, keen winds and snow showers – winter has surprised us with its coldest weather, fresh from the Arctic.
On nights when the sky is clear, the stars twinkle and flicker like Will-o’-the-wisps. This is caused by strong winds high in the atmosphere and it’s a sign that another wild day is on the way.
While Atlantic weather may push in for a time, the changeover could trigger more snowfalls. The old weather lore approves: “All the months of the year curse a fair February.” In other words, we have to grit our teeth now if we’re to have a reasonable summer.
Although the cold will probably be with us for the next few weeks, spring is only delayed. Candlemas on Monday was a significant milestone marking the end of the three months with the shortest days. During the next three months we can look forward to rapidly increasing day length, and more warmth from the sun – clouds permitting.
So it may be nithering now, but nature battles on. The first catkins are hanging like lengths of brown cord on the bare hazel trees; as the pollen develops the catkins become bright green, then yellow. These are the hazel’s male flowers and they need windy days to blow their pollen to the female flowers, which are so tiny they are hardly noticeable.
Hazels were once very common woodland trees, and the most useful. First, the highly nutritious nuts were eaten. Then every seven years hazel was coppiced – cut back to a stump – to produce long, pliable shoots.
These were woven into baskets and short stretches of fence called hurdles. They were split to form hoops for barrels. Beans scrambled up hazel rods and they were burned for charcoal and used to divine for water. Over twenty woodland products were made from hazel.
This amazing small tree is much less common today, although hazels can be found along country lanes and growing as specimen trees in towns.
The first flowers have been blooming for a while – snowdrops, those Fair Maids of February, are undeterred by snow or frost. Their leaves have a tough covering that allows them to spear through frozen soil, hence their old name of snow-piercer.
Botanists cannot decide whether snowdrops are native or naturalised. They carpet ancient woods, so we know they’ve been around a long time; some say that monks brought them here in medieval days, among the other plants and herbs that were exchanged between monasteries. Monks picked snowdrops to decorate the altar at Candlemas, which is how the flowers acquired another name, Candlemas bells.
These elegant plants have always divided opinion. In times of plague, the emerging flower buds reminded people of corpses wrapped in shrouds. This sinister aspect led to the belief that fetching snowdrops indoors brought bad luck. Then again, others held that snowdrops growing in a pot could purify the house.
Certainly the flowers can only be fully appreciated close up. Inside the outer petals are three smaller ones marked with a green crescent, and while you’re admiring them you can enjoy the lovely, delicate scent. So unless you fancy kneeling on wet or frozen ground, it’s best to bring some snowdrops indoors.