Winter in the northern Italian countryside has a magical beauty. The air tastes like smoke and the first icy breath of air burns down your throat as you look out on the fields and lawns, all covered by a thin, frail film of glittering ice. The landscape is spellbound, almost motionless: the few pops of colour are all the more obvious to the eye.
The fruits of the callicarpa are an unusual and vivid shade of purple: which is probably why this plant is known as “beautyberry”, and its sales peak during the coldest months. On the subject of berries, many of us will be familiar with cotoneaster without actually knowing its name: this rustic plant is often used in hedges, with its clusters of red berries bouncing softly on their stalks.
At this time of year the flowers of the nandina, or heavenly bamboo, turn into red berries that will remain on the plant until spring. This shrub, which is not actually a bamboo, is planted near temples in Asia and is said to bring good luck.
Dog rose hips are everywhere: a prodigious source of vitamin C (they contain ten times as much as oranges or lemons), these bright red fruits are used to make tea, syrup, marmalade and even wine. The fruits of the dog rose are better known than its flowers, which are, by comparison to other roses, rather unremarkable and almost scentless, while the fruits possess an elegant, almost Victorian beauty.
The petals of the hellebore are also used to make tea, while its roots and rootstalk are so toxic that they must be handled with gloved hands. An ancient folk tale tells of a little shepherd girl who was so awed by the magnificent gifts brought by the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus that she started weeping because she had nothing to give. Moved to compassion by her tears, an angel showed her a patch of white flowers nearby that she could pick to give the Holy Child a gift of her own: and this is why the hellebore is also known as Christmas rose, in spite of not being related to the rose family.
And speaking of edibles: did you know that crabapples are the mothers of all apples? Without the tiny, pretty crabapple we wouldn’t have the big juicy golden apples, the Granny Smiths, the Fuji, the organic, the pretty poison apple that Snow White naively bites into, and the apple that caused the Trojan war when Paris used it to elect Aphrodite as most beautiful goddess in a mini-pageant that pitted the Goddess of Love against Hera and Athena. Impressive, isn’t it?