Bright star

With fo­liage and flow­ers in shorter sup­ply, damp days see Frank en­joy­ing the in­tense colour of win­ter shrubs


Wet, pol­ished bark and multi-coloured stems pro­vide so­lace for Frank Ro­nan in the win­ter gar­den

Things are wet. The win­ter has be­come a steady drip. We can look for a crisp day at this time of year, but the crackle will all be in frosted hu­mid­ity and noth­ing to do with dry­ness. You could shiver and turn your back to it, or you could look again and see what shine there is on these glim­mer­ing days that creep down­wards to the sol­stice. Just as the most beau­ti­ful sum­mer day is the one fresh and wet from rain, so it is still about the in­ter­play of light and mois­ture. It is lucky for us that as the light be­comes rarer and more pre­cious, so the all-en­hanc­ing mois­ture is with us in re­li­able abun­dance.

We are ob­sessed, pri­mar­ily with flow­ers and then with fo­liage, and the fact that both of them are in such short sup­ply now can make us dis­miss this sea­son as a bar­ren one, star­ing im­pa­tiently at the win­ter­sweet, will­ing it into pro­duc­tion, only to snip off the first flow­ers and rush them in­doors to sniff at in the warm, or hack­ing at the holly bushes so that the berries can all be ours to ad­mire as they shrivel, be­fore the birds have had their chance.

Not that we can re­sist fill­ing the house with holly and pine and ivy and mistle­toe, but the amaz­ing trans­for­ma­tion they bring in­doors make us for­get how much more beau­ti­ful they were out­side, in the damp. Ev­ery day liv­ing with us they be­come dryer and duller un­til we cast them out with re­lief long be­fore Twelfth Night, for­get­ting to look again at how fresh and wet the still liv­ing things are in the gar­den. Maybe it is eas­ier to see the ef­fect on things we don’t tra­di­tion­ally har­vest for dec­o­ra­tion, not only other ev­er­greens, but the bark of de­cid­u­ous shrubs and trees. If that bark is shiny to start with, then a wet sheen will bring it to a highly pol­ished state. If the bark is coloured the mois­ture will in­ten­sify and deepen the colour; if it is pale a mist will make it ghostly.

I was late com­ing to the sorts of willows and dog­woods that give good stem colour in the win­ter. I prob­a­bly thought that you had to have a lot of them; a whole lake­side to have the full ef­fect. But then one or two crept in for other rea­sons: a f lower ad­mired in spring or a leaf in au­tumn: that com­bined with a damp bit of the bor­der that had killed a suc­ces­sion of tamarisks and was call­ing out for some­thing more bog tol­er­ant. Now I re­alise you don’t have to have the grand, car­riage-stop­ping show, or the per­fect com­bi­na­tion of a red, a yel­low and an orange set off by the pris­tine bark of a white birch. Sin­gle­tons, good in their own right and in more than one sea­son, such as Cor­nus alba Ba­ton Rouge (= ‘Min­bat’), can be al­lowed to in­fil­trate any part of the gar­den, from where they can en­tice you, at ran­dom, when­ever the win­ter spot­light falls on them.

Salix pur­purea ‘Nancy Saun­ders’ doesn’t have a bad day the whole year. There are a few weeks in spring when she has been shorn back to her stump and ceases to be re­mark­able, but even then she re­tains a charm rare among the pol­larded. In the sum­mer she is a beauty with her slightly twist­ing, barely purple, leaves, and if it rains she holds jew­els of water all along the rus­set twigs, quiv­er­ing and gleam­ing in the breeze. But it is in the win­ter that she be­comes the god­dess of the gar­den.

If you have a ground-floor win­dow from which you can see the low sun in De­cem­ber, put Nancy be­tween you and the light, and wait for the days when the rays are strong while there is enough mois­ture on her wet branches to re­fract it. There will be an op­ti­cal ef­fect like a huge, spher­i­cal, plat­inum cob­web, more bril­liant than you can imag­ine is pos­si­ble in the plant world.


Frank Ro­nan is a nov­el­ist who lives and gar­dens in Worces­ter­shire.

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