Green Hibernation 

Plant dormancy and winter greenery traditions

An inversion figured prominently in my last piece, and it had broken by the time the issue was in the stand. It's flippin' cold as I write, and I'm entirely willing to bet that it will be this cold again, possibly on the day this article breaks.

My back door is frozen shut. My garage door has tremors. Icicles hang from my hot tub cover, and the big rhododendron snuggled up to it has rolled its leaves into dreadful looking tubes of anguish. My arborvitae, jealous of deciduous trees that flaunt a costume change before their curtain call, has acquired a tone of burnished gold. Ornamental grasses, from the coppery sedge (its detractors call it "dead-looking" all year) to maiden grasses with opalescent seed heads, assume a papery character that rustles a distinctive song. Many deciduous trees have shed their leaves and revealed their specific shapes for the world to see. Even the baddest plant in the palette, Yucca filamentosa, is a skinny little shadow of its usually buff self. Each of these plants is exhibiting some degree of dormancy.

The custom of bringing winter greenery indoors is as universal to far-ranging cultures as tales of a great flood. Differences in the narratives that accompany these traditions are somewhat subtle, most being comprised of variations on the resilience of evergreens in particular. Some credit Martin Luther, the 16th century religious reformer, with introducing the indoor decorated tree. Since he was at the forefront of German political and religious culture at that time, many hoped to hitch a ride to grace on the tails of his Santa suit.

Mistletoe was a favorite of the Druids, pagan practitioners of the British Isles before, during and since the Roman occupation. (Mistletoe is now recognized by foresters as a predatory and parasitical pest, and by toxicologists as a poison more deadly than eggnog.) Then, as now, it was known to redirect lightning bolts, becoming the preferred locus for long, deep kisses. Since a few individuals who tempted fate and tested this theory believed they felt the earth move, our refinement is to keep these kisses brief in public.

Holly was thought to protect bearers from the evil eye, and Karl Rove has been seen tucking sprigs of this colorful plant into George's lapel when he conducts press conferences. Poinsettias may have first become symbolic of holy occasions in Mexico, and one needs only to survive the checkout line at Costco to sense the appreciable hum those big pots deliver. Shamefully secular, it could also be the harmonic dance of the money changing.

Birdseye frozen vegetables, ships full of New Zealand apples, lettuce from the Imperial Valley and fruit from South America mitigate for us moderns the abject longing for fresh greenery earlier folks had no choice but to endure. We still, however, pass on these traditions and hear our offspring and significant others howl inconsolably at any mention of a smaller tree. (The year of the real cedar swag on the banister morphed into the January of profane vacuuming. It will be petroleum fibers or nothing.)

Early folks softened the cold and darkness with the evocative characteristics of plant material. Of all that any culture, early or recent, primitive or delusionally advanced, impoverished or wealthy, simple or liberal, might wish to venerate in a season of introspection and resolve, nothing could be more basic or essential than plants' progression from evident vitality to dormancy and around again.

Psychologists and neurologists haven't yet satisfied themselves that they understand what humans are accomplishing as they sleep. Many theorize that there's some sorting going on, and the images in our dreams may be a jumble of ideas we're saving and deleting from cache. It's almost as if we're experiencing a dormancy of our developing souls as we cull the extraneous and polish the pearls. Plants' dormancy periods, defined as "a reduction of physiological activity to the minimum needed for survival," may seem a little analogical to the week between Christmas and New Year's when people either go to Mexico, watch hours of video under blankets or read.

The winter's sleep for plants in temperate regions, or in the warmer months for desert dwellers, enables them to refine and concentrate some of the hormones and creative juices they will need for the upcoming cycle. They lose or discard parts they can spare or those that are be damaged by weather extremes. Seeds may lie dormant for literally thousands of years, passively awaiting a change in light, warmth, moisture, soil depth or a transformation in their protective coat. Perennials, shrubs and trees, with myriad defensive properties and vulnerabilities, may sugar-load to prevent freeze damage, all more efficacious than my habit of finishing the Christmas sweets before Epiphany. Why don't their stems thicken like mine?

Cold--though an imperative element in the life process of plants in our region--is drying, or, in botanical terms, "desiccating." The rhododendrons' curling habit is to minimize the pores through which moisture exits at times when the frozen ground makes water unavailable. Silverish or waxy coats on some leaves behave as fleece or zip lock baggies. On trees, the clearly viable coat over infant leaves and branches is called the bud scale, and it makes the most high tech outdoor fabrics appear lame by comparison.

In early cultures, where some of our most cherished customs were born, the threats and brutality of winter may have been more easily borne in the context of plants' consistently hopeful examples. As a reincarnated Druid—or medieval witch, according to some emotionally thwarted individuals—I imagine the unseen activities of the plants around me and envy the relative repose I'm unlikely to share until after the holidays.

Linda Jarsky is a master gardener, certified arborist and landscape designer.

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