Imbolc, Candlemas and the first signs of spring in Sussex!
Imbolc falls across the 1st and 2nd of February and represents the halfway point between the winter solstice (the shortest day, just before Christmas) and the spring equinox (which is usually about the time the clocks change). Imbolc is a pagan celebration and signals the beginning of spring and new life. It’s not dissimilar to Candlemas, a Christian celebration held on the 2nd February.
Whatever your faith or beliefs, early February signifies a time to rejoice and breathe a deep sigh of relief. It may still feel like the bleak mid-winter, but things are changing and the early but tell-tale signs of Sussex spring life are beginning to take shape. I’m not talking about the omnipresent flowers of the garden like the daffodil, snowdrops and crocuses that start to burst forth. No, in February, I’m greedy for more, and I’m looking for a firm commitment from Mother Nature that spring is now within reach.
Blackthorn may be the curse of many country cyclist (I can’t think how many times I’ve had to push my bike home having cycled to the village via the bridlepaths), but the blossom in early spring is one of the very first signs of spring. Swathes of white, like flags surrendering to the inevitable better weather line the hedgerows and overgrown pastures. One moment, the roadsides are thorny and bare, and then two sunny days in February later and you’ll notice clusters of gentle and hazy white cloud.
Of course, blackthorn isn’t the only early bloomer and I’ve seen some cherry trees and crab apples bloom as early as December around here. But with those, you know it’s a false start. You know you still have months of winter endurance ahead whilst with blackthorn, you know that the worst of the winter is behind you.
Wild garlic and bluebells
From early February, the green shoots of wild garlic can be seen pushing up in the woods of Sussex, often in amongst the bluebells. Later in the spring, they’ll both spread out into carpets of purple and white, and the heady scent of garlic will tickle your taste buds as you meander.
But in February, they’re one of the first things that start to turn the brown woodland floor, green. You can go out one day and there’s nothing there but dead leaves and mud, and then days later, the sharp, pokey green heads are already transforming the landscape. All parts of the garlic leaves and flowers are edible, and you can use them in olive oil, on salads, or as pesto. The flowers make a very pretty salad decoration too!
Oh, the ubiquitous catkin! Unsurprisingly, we knew them as cat’s tails as children and I distinctly remember my grandparents pointing them out as the first sign of spring. You may or may not know that the soft yellow tails are actually the male flower and if you look closely, you’ll also see the tiny, red spidery flowers of the female part of the process.
Whilst hazel may be much maligned as one of the less exciting trees on the block, for me there’s something inherently reassuring about them and their cat’s tails. Perhaps that’s because they held a magical position in Celtic mythology where they were associated with wisdom and inspiration.
It’s not too early in February to see the first frogspawn but in our corner of Sussex, February usually also marks the start of the great toad and frog migration. These amphibians have usually been hibernating overwinter in piles of woodland leaves, or under rocks, and now is the time of year for them to start to head back to their ancestral breeding pond!
It does depend on how mild the winter has been, but with nearby woodland, and lots of small ponds dotted about, February normally sees hundreds of toads and frogs marching down our lane at dusk. So much so, that we have to warn motorists in an effort to try and prevent a devastating annual slaughter, and I’ve even seen our local farmer at dusk walking in front of the tractor with a torch, trying to clear the way!
Spring in Sussex is such a symbolic time, from Imbolc onwards, it’s worth savouring every moment of nature’s majesty as it unfurls and unfolds around us. Winter is nearly done.
If you enjoyed this post, you may enjoy some of our Sussex walks: