What a funny outlook for 2016. Don’t you agree? I can’t think what may lie ahead of us in the New Year’s tiny cradle. On Christmas Day the LWs motored into Cambridgeshire and, although the rain was coming down in stair rods, the verges and greens on the edge of the fens were golden with hosts of daffodils, full out. Not just one or two rogue flowers, but the whole Wordsworth effect. I could hardly bear to look: it was like Easter Day. Since then I’ve seen wallflowers, periwinkles, dwarf iris and, most awfully, our magnificent village Parma violets which usually bloom in a purple carpet by the bus stop in time for Easter.
How shall we be placed by then? That’s what worries me. Will the roses be out? My neighbour tells me this coming summer will be “Australian in its intensity”. The grass is already running riot and badly needs cutting, but no chance of that in all this wet – and, if we are in for an Antipodean drought, worrying about lawns must be redundant. I don’t want to see all this unnatural growth, and I don’t care to smell it. It seems most terribly wrong : I am not ready for violets before Epiphany. My favourite name for a nail polish may be Revlon’s “Cherries In The Snow” – but when this supposition seems to become likely, it’s not so nice. Instead of glorious and heartening, late December violets appear sinister – and pathetic, too, for who knows when that ruthless killer Jack Frost may decide to suddenly wake up and pounce? And there is something missing too, for the concomitant insects who should be buzzing about the plants, intoxicated by scent, spring light and warmth, have wisely absented themselves.
Nonetheless, one must keep positive and I’m somewhat encouraged by knowing that it has – naturally – all happened before. When the dying Princess Pocahontas sailed for America in 1617 – a voyage never achieved – the banks of the Thames were in full summer blow, even in February. And there’s been a heartening letter in The Times reminding us of honeysuckle and nectarine blossom in Horace Walpole’s garden on Boxing Day 1748. It’s funny though, isn’t it? The weather seems to be aping our own nutty modern impatience: we can’t much enjoy the present for always wanting to move on to the next entertainment. Christmas wrap and decorations were swept away from our local shops two weeks before the 25th: now it’s as though El Nino is mocking us with premature spring flowers that don’t fit the occasion. Nature is unsuitably and grotesquely bedecked, like a school-age damsel sprayed with her mama’s Poison or Opium. “The Last Rose of Summer” – and the first of winter.
But there again, all this alteration in nature has been creeping up on us throughout LW’s lifetime, ever since he first took an infant interest in gardening by sowing radishes and mustard & cress. When I go for my annual medical lunch at Teddington in August, I find the town a tropical bower of passion flowers. Speaking only for myself, I don’t remember seeing an example of this plant blooming in England prior to c.1980. Gardening books of the 1950’s give very different advice from today on flowering times and plant hardiness. Change is good for all of us: it may not always seem attractive, but it keeps the human race going and it is always interesting to observe, especially in safe retrospect.
“May you live in interesting times!” – the notorious, and no doubt apochryphal, Oriental curse.
But truly, the only flowers – apart from hellebores and, presently, snowdrops* – I enjoy seeing at this time of year are those intended for indoor decorations. I appreciate (though rarely get) a room with a roaring fire where apple wood smoke is a backdrop to Blue Delft bowls of hyacinths; cascades of potted jasmine; shocking pink prawn-like Christmas cacti; cyclamen, azaleas and the jolly brash blaze of poinsettia. I was surprised to read in the paper that, despite loving their scent, Jo Malone finds tuberoses ugly to look upon. I guess the budding stems can appear rather like asparagus but, when those starry miniature lily blooms begin to open, the tuberose is for me the apogee of exoticism. Bizarre, perhaps, but gorgeous: like Gloria Swanson’s fabulous face. One stem can amply perfume your living space for days. That’s my botanical ideal for January: peering at a brilliant frosty outdoors through the sub-tropical petals of an interior winter garden.
* but, in 2015, flowering in the graveyard in time for the Christmas Carol Service.