Learning to Love the Autumn Dark

In the last few weeks the leaves have tumbled from the trees, the march of autumn moving at a fast pace. The last of the birch leaves, so pretty and uplifting in their butter yellow autumn vestments, have been blown from their branches overnight by a hearty westerly. 

Silver birch

This year I have decided to think positively about the dark end of the year. The delayed mornings and early sunsets of November and December always leave me feeling a bit melancholy but rather than give in to the habit of bemoaning the short hours of sunlight, I recall something my brother said last year. Nature needs this hiatus, this disappearance below ground. It needs to ‘gird its loins’ in preparation for the next growing season. 

There has been so much fruit and so many berries this autumn and that is due to the amazing amount of exquisite blossom we had in the spring. That, in turn, was due to the long, cold spring which allowed nature to recoup and regroup so when it finally warmed up in May there was an explosion of white, pink and red. These days we tend to think this is unusual but as a child I remember it always being like this. Apple trees in the garden clothed in their dark pink buds turning to pale blossoms, Hawthorns laden with a froth of white. Brambles scrambling through the hedgerows, their insignificant flowers promising so much later in the year. In recent years, with warmer winters and early springs, our plants have not had the time to rest. As a result the spring show has been diluted. I for one am looking forward to a long, cool spring if it gives us such a wild and wonderful floral spectacle.

In any case, there is a lot to celebrate still in the garden. The aforementioned berries are flashes of colour as the evergreens now hold pride of place. Nandina domestica, Heavenly Bamboo, has bright red berries and if we get the cold spell promised the leaves will also turn red. Iris foetidissima, Stinking Iris, which turned up in the garden probably as a result of a bird or small mammal  eating the berries elsewhere and depositing them on the edges of the garden, also has bright red clusters of berries.  If not eaten by wildlife or caught before dropping it can become invasive but the jolliness of the berries at this time of year are worth keeping an eye on before they can take over. Myrtus communis ‘compacta’, a small version of the lovely Myrtle shrub has dark purple berries that are glamorous set against the small, shiny pointed leaves. Flowering in May it is hit and miss if the weather will allow this lovely shrub to fruit  in the autumn. It loves a prolonged warm spell for the fruit to set. I have been lucky. It has always fruited for me.

If you look carefully there is evidence of spring already emerging. Hellebore flowers are pushing up below their thick palmate leaves. I carefully cut the leaves down to ground level at this time of year so the flowers have pride of place.

Helleborus x hybridus – leaves cut back to reveal new emerging flowers

The wind-blown birches and hazel have revealed their catkins.  The leaves hide the emerging growth of these favourites of my childhood til they start to drop and there they are – catkins –  pale and anaemic biding their time till they start to respond to the warmth of the spring sun when they elongate and dance in the breeze.

Winter Jasmine and Viburnum farreri ‘Candidissimum’ are flowering and throwing out their heady perfume. The latter is by the compost area and glows in the low light at this time of year, its perfume spicy and warming. It always amazes me that there are plants that love winter conditions. Adapted to the low light levels and often the most perfumed. When the temperature rises a little it is like a lock being picked and they’re off, pumping out their perfume for all they’re worth. Attracting brave pollinators and, in my opinion, better than any perfume in a bottle.

Snowdrops are just starting to poke their pointy leaves above the soil surface hidden under the leaves I have decided to allow to decompose on the borders this year rather than tidy away. Above the snowdrops, Sarcococca hookeriana var. dygina ‘Purple Stem’, or sweet box, has, as it says, beautiful purple stems and small uninspiring flowers that will start to perfume the whole of the front garden. Primroses, disguised until now under all the late flowering perennials, are starting to open their pretty little heads. These stalwarts will provide nectar to any late foraging bees throughout the winter and early spring.

So without looking back at the summer or longing for the spring, I am going to wrap up warm, take advantage of the light we have and revel in the present and enjoy the many moments of prettiness that still abound in my garden.

1 thought on “Learning to Love the Autumn Dark”

  1. Oh wow, you grow winter jasmine! I do not know why it is so rare here. Pink jasmine is still somewhat popular. I happen to have an unknown species of winter jasmine that I got copies (cuttings) of from a job site. I am just getting used to its growth habit. In a way, I sort of think that it will grow like a vine like the pink jasmine does, but of course, it has other plans.


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