Kate Ponting: Nature’s comfort in hard times

Red berries on the dark green leaves of an ivy plant

Evergreens like holly, ivy and mistletoe are symbols of life - Credit: Archant

Restrictions, uncertainty and common sense may have impacted our normal seasonal preparations, inconvenienced Christmas shopping, and prevented sociable festive get-togethers. However, nature has continued unabated in its annual readiness for wintertime.

Anyone able to make the most of countryside walks, will have noticed the wealth of fruit on show. 

Red berries on broom plant

Broom at Colaton Raleigh - Credit: Kate Ponting

Natural plenty from rowan, blackthorn, hawthorn or the dog rose stands out against bare branches and the contrast of scarlet berries against evergreens like broom or holly are hard to miss.

Evergreens like holly, ivy and mistletoe are symbols of life, being always green, even in the depths of winter.

Our ancient forebears brought greenery into their homes believing they held protective powers and way before Christmas trees, used plants in midwinter rituals and celebration. 

Blue-purple coloured sloe berries on a plant

Sloes (blackthorn) found at Budleigh Salterton - Credit: Kate Ponting


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Holly produces a proliferation of red berries - or drupes for any botanical purists - to sustain wildlife especially mistle thrush and several mice species through the colder months.

Garlands of holly were hung by our pagan forebears to entice woodland spirits into their homes. Sacred to the Roman god, Saturn, who was worshipped at the midwinter festival of Saturnalia, holly keeps us warm as a good firewood when seasoned and can even provide heat and a good flame when burnt green.

A cluster of bright red berried on a hawthorn bush

Hawthorn by the River Otter - Credit: Kate Ponting

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This evergreen with its spiked leaves and blood red berries was then adopted by Christians to represent Christ’s thorny crown and sacrifice, forever securing its link to Christmas.

Mistletoe has long associations with fertility and links with Ancient Greek and Druid mythology.

The Romans associated mistletoe with peace, love and understanding, hanging it over doorways to protect the household. Early Christianity retained these traditions, hanging mistletoe for love, vitality as well as protection against witches. From the 18th century references mention kissing under mistletoe, a tradition which you may continue to this day?

A parasitic plant, mistletoe takes up water and nutrients from its host tree. Although it can inhibit a trees growth, mistletoe rarely kills it and can be managed to ensure both stay healthy.

The female plants bear the white, waxy berries which are favoured by thrushes and blackcaps who in turn help the future harvest by wiping the sticky seeds from their beaks into the bark of trees.

Ivy does not take from or damage trees but simply uses them, or other structures, in its climbing endeavour to reach the light.  Ivy’s late season flowers enable butterflies to build up reserves of energy to overwinter.

The small dark berries provide a valuable source of food for hundreds of species whilst its trailing nature and dense ground cover provides a year-round refuge for small animals.

Folk legends or old wives’ tales claim you can tell how harsh a winter will be, by the number of berries on rowan or holly. But plants cannot predict the future and this abundance has more to do with a combination of favourable conditions, such as the wet spring and a warm summer we experienced this year.

So, while this natural bounty cannot help us forecast with certainty how cold or bleak the winter season will be, the splash of bright berries against bare or evergreen branches can hopefully bring solace in these dark times.

Whatever beliefs or symbolism you hold true and however you choose to decorate your homes, bring some evergreen in too, so that hope and life may enter your homes this season. 

I wish all readers a very happy Christmas and a healthy and peaceful New Year from all at Clinton Devon Estates.

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