Thoughts on midwinter spring, sweet scent and forgotten botanical discoveries
Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart's heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.
And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier,
Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire
In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing
The soul's sap quivers. There is no earth smell
Or smell of living thing. This is the spring time
But not in time's covenant. Now the hedgerow
Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom
Of snow, a bloom more sudden
Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading,
Not in the scheme of generation.
Where is the summer, the unimaginable
TS Eliot did not find any earth smell in his opening to Little Gidding, the last of his Four Quartets. But walking uphill from our friend Lena's house, in the maritime climate of western Oregon, I did. The rain splattered off my umbrella as I went up and up and the fog drifted with me as I turned and went down, down, to stop, as if held by a hand, by a fragrant, sweet scent, which, bent over in the dark, I discovered by the glow of a lamp came from the tiny white flowers of Sweet Box, Sarcococca confusa, a gift from China and the British explorers who brought her home.
Sarcococca was first collected in 1887 by Scottish physician and amateur botanist, Augustine Henry (1857-1930) and again in 1901 by the incredible Ernest H. "Chinese" Wilson (1876-1930).
However, the seeds must have gone into a depression shortly after arrival or been relegated to a disorganized botanist's drawer, because Sweet Box went unnoticed for decades. As far as I know Beverly Nichols never mentions it in his chapters on winter flowers, about which he is something of a fanatic.
Sweet Box began to be planted in English and American gardens in the 1990s, "soon after the Royal Botanical Society funded new quests into Yunnan Province" and rediscovered Sweet Box.
Catching her scent, "the soul's sap quivers".