By Ashley Wahl
Winter is a treasure trove of fragrance and memory.
One whiff of cinnamon and I’m back in Grammy’s kitchen, watching the birds through the sunny window as cinnamon sticks simmer on the stovetop.
“Is that pesky critter back?” she asks, squinting as she scans the front yard, feeders swinging like wobbly pendulums.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” she says, watching a plump, gray squirrel balance like a clumsy acrobat between a crepe myrtle branch and a hanging tray. “Hand me that squirt gun, would you?”
Incense takes me back further still: to the children’s nativity play at Catholic Mass, frankincense and myrrh wafting up toward the vaulted ceiling as toddlers slink from laps to kneelers, climb from kneelers to creaky wooden pews. As the organist fires up Joy to the World, all I can see is Christmas dinner (sliced ham, soft rolls, green beans, potato gratin), with a smorgasbord of cookies and an ocean of neatly wrapped presents to follow.
And then — yes, there it is — the scent of Fraser fir.
I must have been 11 when my folks brought home that first real tree. Until then, unfurling and shaping the plastic branches of our trusty artificial was, for me, the highlight of the holidays. But once the house smelled like a lush woodland forest, I was a convert. Although I had neither the words nor the reference for it, it was some kind of awakening. Our days of plastic trees were done.
Hot chocolate, citrus, peppermint bark, homemade pie . . .
The aromatic ghosts of Christmas past are merely a
Snow was falling, so much like stars filling the dark trees that one could easily imagine its reason for being was nothing more than prettiness.
— Mary Oliver
The Lenten Rose
When a plant blooms in the dead of winter, it is neither ordinary nor meek. That plant is miraculous.
Also called the “Lenten rose”, the hellebore is a beloved and shade-tolerant herbaceous or evergreen perennial (not a rose) that so happens to thrive here. Some species more than others.
Take, for example, the bear claw hellebore, which is named for its deeply cut “weeping” leaves.
Late winter through early spring, this herbaceous perennial displays chartreuse green flowers that the deer won’t touch, and you shouldn’t either (read: toxic when ingested). As the flowers mature, the petal edges blush a soft, pale ruby. Talk about subtle beauty, but more for the eyes than for the nose (its crushed leaves are what give it the nickname “stinking hellebore”).
On behalf of every flower-loving soul, aching in their bones for the coming spring, thank you, hellebore. You’re a true queen.
In the Garden
Bare branches against bright sky in every direction, and yet a closer look reveals flowering witch hazel, camellia and daphne, hellebores, apricot and winter jasmine.
In the garden, now’s time for preparation.
Prune what’s asking to go. Fertilize beds with wood ash. And when the soil is dry enough, plant asparagus crowns for early spring harvest.
Soon, a sea of spring vegetables will grace the garden. English peas, cabbage, carrots, radish, turnip, rutabaga. But now, patience.
Patience and faith.
Warm Your Bones
Winter blossoms make the cold hard to shake.
Crocuses burst open like paper fortune tellers, hellebores whisper prophesies of spring, and in the backyard, where a speckled bird is kicking up fresh mulch, winter daphnes blush like bright-eyed maidens in faded terracotta planters.
All of this, yet winter feels deep-rooted, endless. As if her flowers were cruel illusion. As if your bones could be forever yoked to this chill. As if soup is the only answer.
The following recipe from DamnDelicious.net is sure to warm you to the core.
Spinach and White Bean Soup
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, diced
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
4 cups vegetable stock
2 bay leaves
1 cup uncooked orzo pasta
2 cups baby spinach
1 (15-ounce) can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Heat olive oil in a large stockpot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add garlic and onion, and cook, stirring frequently, until onions have become translucent, about 2-3 minutes. Stir in thyme and basil until fragrant, about 1 minute.
Whisk in vegetable stock, bay leaves and 1 cup water; bring to a boil. Stir in orzo; reduce heat and simmer until orzo is tender, about 10-12 minutes.
Add spinach and cannellini beans and continue cooking until the spinach has wilted, about 2 minutes. Top it all off with lemon juice and parsley; season with salt and pepper, to taste.