After the thaw Posted on January 17, 2011

Last week we were contemplating a tedious task: raking up all the leaves that fell so tardily, from the oaks especially. In many places they hid the grass completely, threatening to kill it. Strange: usually the earthworms take care of them, hauling them down into the earth in bizarre little brown bunches that stand up rather like breast-pocket hankies. But of course when the ground froze the worms dived for cover, leaving the leaves unharvested.

It is over 50 Fahrenheit degrees now; growing temperature. Just in time to save the grass (or most of it) the worms have got going, working the soil like gardeners, breaking the panned surface into pimples and scars and casts, adding the leaves to a wonderful organic recipe underground. Thank heaven for worms.

The first shrub to recover its poise and perform, as though the ice and snow had never been, is the witch hazel. I have a bunch of its yellow octopus-flowers in front of me on the kitchen table now, filling the room with their unique smell, like a mixture of ranges and fish oil (just what I swallow at breakfast, indeed: orange juice and cod liver oil pills). The octopus tentacles (there are ten or so but so writhy it is hard to count. Why does my reference book say four?) emerge from a miniature red-brown flower with a gold-stamened centre on the tiniest scale. Which part, I wonder, issues the powerful smell? What insect is it they are hoping to attract at this time of year? I thought flies liked disgusting smells.

Iris stylosa is back in business in its granny purple after the freeze, and the earliest snowdrops, Galanthus elwesii, with their pale grey leaves and oversize flowers, altogether lacking the pixy charms of our natives. Mahonias are flowering again and Daphne bholua, its smart dark leaves destroyed, is starting to open flower buds at the tips of bare branches.

Viburnum bodnantense is taking up where it left off when the snow came, Lonicera fragrantissima is scenting the corner of the kitchen garden, and this morning the first winter aconites turned their yellow lights on.

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