Desperate for a relief from winter’s anaesthesia, we think of spring as a moment, but it is more of a process, a quickening in a seamless cycle. Bunched leaves are already green in the buds in early autumn; birds’ migration countdowns under way at the winter solstice. Here are five steps of spring visible at this time of year.
Do snowdrops have a scent? Impressionable sniffers insist they smell of snow, but most people say they can detect the softest hint of honey. All early spring flowers share this scent. Sarcococca is honey and musk, winter heliotrope an exotic confection of honey and marzipan. No wonder the Parisian aristocracy transplanted it from the obscurity of the Italian mountains to their winter gardens. But what possible point is there in this precocious flaunting of nectar, when so few insects are about to take advantage of it?
One answer to the above question is the early bees, lured out of their hibernation by the occasional warm day. I’ve seen bumble bees out already this January. But it is a perilous adventure for them, the nectar from the first crocuses and mahonias barely enough to maintain their body-weight. Sometimes you’ll find them catatonic on the blossoms – warning trophies of winter’s continuance.
Ladybirds are tougher animals. If you live in the country, they’ll be beginning to rattle around your bed linen, their internal timers (the poet John Clare’s name for them was “clock-o’-clay”) already signalling it is time to wake up. Working in the garden you discover their huge ingenuity in seeing out the winter. They stagger out of hollow stalks and the folds between leaves, scurry from the first bonfires of the year. Chubby, faintly comical, beloved of children, their stirrings touch the heart for what they say about survival.
4. Hazel catkins
Hazel catkins, fluffy and adorable, are the first widespread flower in the countryside. From Cornwall to Cumbria they are known as lamb-tails. But these are the male flowers. The female are more fascinating, and, dare one say, more erotic. Held close to the twigs and minuscule in proportions, their scarlet tendrils resemble miniature sea-anemones, vegetable sirens, not waving, but grasping. If they succeed, and are pollinated in the early spring winds, these are what hazelnuts grow from.
The end of the month, if there’s a spell of mildness, will be blessed by the first rough performances of the nation’s spring clarion, the blackbird. The bird flies up to the roof – that confident swoop – and starts to sing, a song so reflective and relaxed that it captures the whole aura of that early spring moment, when the evenings are palpably “drawing out”. If you are lucky, you will have one such moment every year of your life, and each time it will remind you of all the ones before.
Richard Mabey’s ‘Weeds: How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed Civilisation’ is published by Profile Books