December 20, 2008

Quest for Red in Nature on a Bleak Winter Day in London

Winter in London lives up to its reputation. Late morning, darkness morphs into gray and late afternoon, morphs back into darkness. Walking outside under streetlamps, you may feel sure you are late for dinner – but a quick glance at your watch reminds you it is still early. Even falling snow is a time of misery. Snowflakes pellet your face, stinging like darts. As they make contact, they melt rapidly into a chilled puddle and suck out the last few degrees of warmth. No matter how much you try to tell yourself that too much sun accelerates aging, you may find yourself sliding into depression or at least heading for hibernation.

To pull yourself out of this dismal abyss, you can raise your spirits by playing a mind game. Seek red everywhere and when you find it, savour it. Red means different things to many people, but it creates a stronger emotional reaction than any other colour. I associate red with the Christmas holidays and the promise of longer days.

I set out on the tow path along the Thames towards Kew Gardens, seeking red in nature. But there was no red in nature here, only man-made artefacts. For a moment, I coveted the red mini-cooper parked near a posh town home. Two-foot orange cylindrical buoys and a red door frame fronting a dark gray boat house added a bit of cheer to the river. Red lifesaving rings hung on walls near every boat clubhouse. Toddlers in prams and coxswains alike sported charcoal rain jackets accented with bright crimson.

Once inside the Kew Gardens gates, I aimed for the famed Holly Walk, with very high expectations. Kew has over 56 species and hybrids of holly, and claims to have the biggest collection in Europe. The Holly Walk was originally laid out in 1874 by Sir Joseph Hooker, thus most of the hollies I will see are over 130 years old. The berries are advertised to be at their peak in November and December.

I did pass by many holly bushes, with leaves in variegated greens from dark pine to green so light as to look almost yellow. But it was a long time before I spotted a bush with any berries. The clusters were sparse and there were only three berries per cluster. The individual berries reminded me of imperfectly shaped organic apples, with a diameter about the size of a newborn baby’s thumbnail.

A few hollies further, I hit the mother-lode, the only bush with a plethora of berries. Hundreds of orange red clusters adorned the branches, with 20 to 30 berries in each cluster. Now, this is what I needed to warm my heart! I plucked a few, rolling them around in my palm. They looked juicy, but were quite firm when squeezed. Fallen berries formed a protective layer around the roots. I relished those holly berries for several minutes.

I completed the walk without seeing any more berries. I was disappointed that the website hype far surpassed the actual experience. But that is what we travellers do; we have to see for ourselves if a destination lives up to what has been written about it.

And will my holly experience prevent me from returning to Kew Gardens in February to see the “Tropical Extravaganza” where the Princess of Wales Conservatory will be “bursting with scarlet and tangerine, lilac and purple, overloaded with warm sounds and scents, and bedecked with orchids and bromeliads for a truly carnival feel”? Absolutely not! Because for me, “Hope springs eternal!” I will be back. My quest for red in nature to brighten my wintry day has yielded little. But I do know where to find red in abundance for certain, and where sunlight is not necessary. It’s time to go Christmas shopping!

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