Is spring here?
We’re between seasons, on the cusp but not there yet. The skies are as likely to be grey as blue, and even as I write this, a cold north wind is lashing at the bare branches outside my window. It’s too soon to put away our gloves and down parkas.
The harbingers are there, however. All around town the forsythia is blooming wildly. Wands of bright yellow blossoms erupt like bursts of golden fireworks, radiant against a backdrop of grey brambles and naked trunks.
Why are the earliest flowers always the brightest?
Daffodils like February Gold and Monel jumped the gun this year, ignoring layers of ice and snow to push their acid yellow heads above ground in mid-January. Now there are sunny rivulets trickling through the masses of hellebores in our woods.
Actually, I’ve planted so many daffodils that I’ve lost track of their names. Some are quite reliable, returning year after year to brighten familiar patches of earth.
Others, like Campernelle (aka Narcissus x odorus ‘Plenus’) are prodigals who vanish for a while, only to return home when you least expect them. This heirloom is doubly irresistible, with ruffled petals as intricate as those of an old rose and an alluring fragrance. The scent is cool and a bit ethereal, but with a latent whiff of sensuality. The kind of perfume Grace Kelly might have worn—if only someone had bottled it.
Lately I’ve been reading a lot about the color yellow. Curiously, it symbolizes exactly what’s called for in any bleak season, real or metaphorical. The same words turn up over and over: enthusiasm, hope, cheerfulness, warmth, optimism, inspiration, vitality. Interestingly, as the Color Psychology site notes, it appears to stimulate “the left side of our brain, where deep thinking and perception dwells.”
To reignite hope, perhaps we have only to paint our front door sunshine yellow (as a neighbor recently did), or buy that amazing golden canary skirt seen on-line, or, more simply, clip a handful of delicate antique pansies for a tiny vase on your desk.
Years ago B was farsighted enough to plant masses of forsythia to hide the big mailbox at the edge of our front lawn. Today we not only enjoy thickets of golden blossoms every time we look out the front windows, but I feel that I am entitled to cut as many branches as I like. Around here we call this “pruning.”
Jammed into a big vase on the Indonesian bench in our front hall, the yellow-flowered wands of this early bloomer create a welcoming sense of anticipation, especially when lit by the rays of the late afternoon sun. If the forsythia is blossoming, can spring be far behind?
We have so many different daffodils that I can scarcely put a name to the face. Doubles, singles, trumpets, recurved blossoms, miniatures and giants, white with yellow hearts, yellow with orange hearts, pale yellow, electric gold, frilly apricot: all are as lovely as single stems in the pale morning light…
…as they are in the most voluptuous mixed bunches.
For B’s birthday, I set the breakfast table with a bouquet of luminous gold and orange ranunculus. I love the way some stems droop and curl, while others stand up ramrod straight. Their translucent petals glow when backlit by the sun.
By the way, the ranunculus, which is related to the wild buttercup, is said to have originated in Iran. One legend tells of a young prince who always wore green and gold. He fell in love with a beautiful nymph and sang to her incessantly. When the other nymphs decided they’d had enough of his serenading, they shut him up by turning him into a flower.
The ranunculus’s message is “You are charming [or attractive].” Just don’t sing about it.
Citrus is a lively winter fruit, coming at the very moment that most of us can’t bear to look at another root vegetable. I adore Meyer lemons: Their unusual deep burnished golden hue is probably the result of a cross between an ordinary lemon and a mandarin orange. The plus, of course, is that Meyers have exquisitely perfumed skins and juice that’s sweeter and less acidic than everyday Eurekas.
A small bowl of these winter beauties will not only lift your spirits every time you glance in their direction, but may also awaken a dulled winter palate. Zest one to add an unexpected twist to your favorite cocktail, grate the skin of another into risotto with winter greens, and turn the rest into salt-preserved lemons to light up almost any Moroccan tagine–even one with root vegetables.
For a delicious, if slightly extravagant way to brighten your life, try a cup of saffron tea. In her memoir-cum-spice book, Saffron: The Vagabond Life of the World’s Most Seductive Spice, Pat Williard recommends this “simple pick me up” on “subtly annoying days.”
Her recipe is easy: Add a tiny pinch of saffron—just a few bright red threads–to a tea cup filled with hot but not boiling water. Let it infuse for 10 minutes. The water in the cup will turn brilliant yellow and when you sip it, you’ll taste the true essence of the spice.
Willard adds honey and lemon, but to me, that’s gilding an already fragrant lily. I find the flavor of the unadulterated tea to be strangely addictive—like the spice, it has a sweet, hay-like taste but there’s also an odd metallic zing that makes me want a second cup.
Of course, you might like to nibble a little something sweet with your tea, such as this almond financier.
Most of us have days that are more or less annoying, so there may be other good reasons to self-medicate with the world’s most expensive spice. Safranal, one of saffron’s key chemical constituents, is said to aid digestion and to act as a sedative by slowing the heart rate and lowering blood pressure. In traditional medicine, it has also been used to treat outright depression, “create a sunny disposition” and “engender wisdom.”
Couldn’t we all use a little more of that?
Let the sun shine in!