A Cure for the Winter Doldrums
Once the leaves have dropped from the tree outside, I hear complaints aplenty from family and friends. The days are short, the landscape bleak, and this whole Jack-Frost-nipping-at-one’s-nose-thing? Forget it! I prefer to take a different view, however. Just think about what it must have been like hundreds of years ago. It’s cold outside, the crops have been harvested, there’s no indoor heat or plumbing. There is no electricity either. You’re cooped up with your entire family in a little cabin, and you’ve been wearing the same clothes for a few weeks by now. What would winter feel like then? Cold, dark, smelly? Looooooong?
Well, have I got a solution for you…plants! When our ancestors included plants in their winter festivals, they were often associated with renewal, a promise of spring. Plants were also central parts of the holiday feasts. Foods that stored well were important, as were flavors that could wake up those sleepy winter taste buds. As a matter of fact, I’m going to go out on a limb (heh heh, horticulture humor!) and say that our holidays would not be holidays without certain plants.
One example is the pumpkin, a native of North America. We think of it as the primary ingredient in pumpkin pie, but it is also a good source of potassium and vitamin A. Early colonists made dessert by scooping out the seeds, filling the pumpkin with milk, honey and spices and baking it over the fire. Mistletoe, another plant commonly associated with winter holidays, was a symbol of health and fertility among the Druids. The thinking went that that if there was a lot of mistletoe in the winter, the crops would be good the coming summer. Kissing under the mistletoe increased the likelihood of marriage in the next year. And, since kissing is generally a good thing, the tradition continues to this day. (Note: The berries of the mistletoe are poisonous, so please keep the plant out of reach of children and pets.)
But, if that pumpkin pie or mistletoe aren’t quite doing it for you, there are other plant-related joys of the season. Certain plants in our Wings of the Tropics exhibit only bloom in the winter months. Who wouldn’t feel jolly after smelling the flowers on the “caramel corn” tree (Dombeya wallichii)? This native of Africa blooms only in December and January; its round clusters of pink flowers smell buttery and sweet. Our red powderpuff tree (Calliandra haematocephala) blooms for a bit longer, usually through February, and is a prime example of a tree that sports its own ornaments- bright scarlet pompoms that seem to glow against a green background.
Finally, many of us prefer our plants with a bit more “bling” this time of year. To that end, I can recommend our upcoming winter event, Living Lights (December 11-19, 2010; see www.butterflies.org for details). Both our tropical rainforest and outdoor gardens will be colorfully illuminated; you’ll see our plant collections in a whole new light (heh heh, more horticulture humor)! Our horticulture staff and volunteers have done their best to bring out the beautiful forms and foliage of trees, shrubs and grasses at the Butterfly Pavilion.
All in all, this winter is shaping up to be a colorful, fragrant and tasty season at the Butterfly Pavilion. If you need a break from the winter doldrums, this is the plant-filled place to be!
Posted by Amy Yarger
Butterfly Pavilion Horticulturist