Year of Grace, Day 87. The promise of an amaryllis

This morning began with snow flurries. The sky then cleared and the sun peeped out, only to have the snow come back, driven by gusty winds. But as before, the snow stopped soon after and all that remains is just a dusting of white on the driveway. The sun is lighting up the birch trunks now against a striped grey and pale blue sky. I feel this is going to be one of those indeterminate weather days, but the forecast is for alternating sun and snow in the morning and continuous snowfall from the afternoon until night. It is weird but lovely to have a cloudless caerulean sky lit by the sun one minute, and a few minutes later a drab sky with threatening clouds. Never a dull moment today for sure!

Over the past days I’ve been working flat out to meet a deadline, and at the same time enjoying the company of houseguests – very good friends from way back, Hong Ching from Malaysia and Carme from Catalonia. Savouring these precious moments and delighting in the sharing of ideas and experiences, and even more, our joy at being together after so long — take priority over journalizing, any day! For these rare and pleasurable visits, I am truly thankful.

Garden update: outdoors the skimmia (Skimmia japonica) bushes are looking very handsome with their maroon buds clustered among shiny evergreen leaves. They’re fattening up and getting ready for spring when their sweet scent will carry throughout the garden. Spikey leaves of the scilla (grape hyacinth) have come up under the twisty hazel tree, and a few flowers have opened precociously on one of the forsythia bushes. It’s the one in a more sheltered spot among other shrubs. Their company keep it protected from the chilling east winds. The artichokes seem to have come through being buried by the last snowfall.

Indoors, the lemon tree continues to bloom and deliciously perfume the sitting room. It obviously loves its position by a south-facing window with lots of light and sun (on those rare sunny days we get in winter here in Bonn). The calamondin (calamansi) on the other hand keeps dropping its leaves, signalling its displeasure at its current location facing west, and although there it gets lots of light, it is certainly deprived of direct sun. I shall have to move it next to the lemon if I don’t wish it to drop all its leaves altogether. Plants requirements trump interior design, and I shall have to forego the pleasure of having the calamondin’s fruits and perfume next to an armchair.

Lower bud cropped

On a brighter note, one of my pots of amaryllis has not just one, but two, buds stretching upwards exceedingly fast. I’ve only taken the bare potted bulbs out of their dark “winter quarters” (the boiler room) a week ago, and in that time one of them has managed a bud close to 30 cm (12 inches) showing a sliver of the palest red. They’re both on a window ledge that gets plenty of light but not direct sun. The other only has leaves at the moment. It was the one traumatized by a ferocious snail or slug attack on its flower bud last year, and perhaps has never quite recovered. I’m hoping it will have forgotten and perhaps put out a bud too. Normally amaryllis is in bloom around Christmas, but perhaps because these pots spend their time outdoors in a not very sunny location, they take much longer to build up their reserves of energy. The bud that had been devoured was just on the verge of emerging from the bulb last summer.

For plants that are at their best in winter when other plants are dormant, I am so grateful. The amaryllis’s buds carry a special message –- during the darkest and coldest and most dreary of times, that is precisely when this stately and elegant lily shows its mettle and blooms.

Year of Grace, Day 80. The colours that brighten winter

Despite days of snow and frost and -5ºC temperatures, there are stalwarts that grace the garden in winter, and I love them all the more and treasure them for hanging on despite everything the fierce weather throws at them. One of them, amazingly enough, is a Mediterranean native – the artichoke – a group of which is stoically braving (knock on wood) the elements on the slope behind the house which is very exposed. Placing them there was an experiment to see if they would do as well as those planted against a south-facing wall. The ten plants are on different levels to see whether the slope and drainage affect their winter hardiness.

Artichoke leaves

Artichoke leaves

Among the earliest to bloom in the backgarden is the Kerria, a Japanese shrub, and it rarely disappoints.  It is now graced with a few cheerful yellow flowers on bright green stalks. The two days of double-digit temperatures have nudged a few into bloom and there are more buds at different stages of plumpness, just biding their time. I find it exceedingly heartening to see this spring bloomer putting forth a few flowers intermittently throughout winter, months ahead of its proper season. It was rather difficult to catch a non-fuzzy photo yesterday as although it was a mild day, the gusty winds were tearing away and whipping at the plants and the trees .

Kerria japonica blooming now

Kerria japonica blooming now

What else caught my eye in the garden yesterday? A bluebell in bloom, moss that I’d been inducing to establish itself on a stone wall (painting the surface with yogurt and sour milk for the past 3 years), catkins on the twisty hazel, lichen on the trunk of a fruiting cherry which looks rather poorly (I suspect it is ridden with honey fungus — the same thing that has already killed several trees), and the brilliant white bark of birch trunks. Fat raindrops began just as I succeeded in taking a non-fuzzy photo of the Kerria flower, and I hurried inside to warm up.

I had forgotten to put on a coat and a hat, silly of me.  A pot of rosebuds, Cretan mountain tea, and a couple of hibiscus petals warmed me up nicely, and the colours of the tea and the perfume of roses went well with a bowl of yogurt and quince syrup. I had intended to make the quince juice into jelly, but changed my mind and left it at the slightly gelled stage – and it makes a very tart-sweet and perfumed addition to yogurt. In a bowl made by potter Michael Moses with a turquoise glaze that puddles into the same colour of the quince syrup at the bottom, it was lovely eye candy as well.

Later I found some forlorn apples in the fridge and since they were no longer crisp enough to eat as they were, I was inspired to try to recreate the baked apples M and I had enjoyed at the tiny Iranian restaurant a month back. It was a hybrid of my Catalonian friend Carme’s Pomes al Forn. (Carme had generously shared a few of her family’s recipes with me for the first edition of the World Cookbook.) It was a good chance to make use of odd nuts – a few pistachios, one (!) pecan in the shell (an escapee from when I made M’s cake obviously), some slivered almonds. Chopped finely and mixed with mulberry syrup (yes, another neglected pantry item just waiting for the right moment for use), enough quince syrup to bind, a dusting of cinnamon, a few squirts of lemon juice — the nut mixture went into the cored apples and were baked for 40 minutes at 160ºC. Oh, I almost forgot – instead of capping the core with the cut-out stalk ends, I fashioned “caps” from marzipan and stuck pistachios for “stems.” With yogurt for me and ice cream for M, we had them later.

For the lovely colours of flowers and plants and fruits (and their scents and flavours as well) that cheered up my day yesterday, and for being around to brighten these dreary winter days, I am very grateful.