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Chase Away the Winter Blues with a Walk in the Garden

Though there may be raw cold, biting wind, snow, and slush, I push myself out my front door every day, all winter long. Why? Although I’m no fan of the cold and dreary winter weather, what’s worse is the winter blues.

I’ve suffered with the winter blues since my late teens. Back then, I didn’t know what to call it, or what to do about it. I felt tired, lazy, and unhappy. I withdrew from social activities, and I slogged through work that in other seasons was a breeze.

Years later, in the course of my studies as a psychotherapist, I learned that the problem has a name: winter blues.

In large part, winter blues is caused by insufficient and ill-timed light. Our bodies rely on adequate, regular, and recurring light and dark cues to function properly. Most obviously, daylight alerts us to awaken, and nighttime darkness readies us for sleep. Periods of light and dark help direct various bodily processes to wax and wane in concert throughout the day, like an orchestra conductor directs a symphony. Inadequate or poorly timed light exposure disrupts the rhythm, causing disturbances of sleep, mood, energy, appetite, and thinking.

Our modern lifestyle exacerbates the problem by diminishing the distinction between day and night. We’re exposed to the bright lights of screens at night and spend long hours indoors with little exposure to natural daylight—especially in winter.

But physical activity and exposure to daylight, even on a dreary day, brightens mood, boosts energy, and sharpens the mind. Just recently, scientists have affirmed what many of us intuitively knew: Spending time in nature also improves mood. (Forest therapy puts this research into practice.)

Armed with this knowledge, I adopted a winter regimen of daytime walks and runs. Occasionally, I’d treat myself to a walk at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Years ago, visiting the Garden soon after a snowfall, I was excited to spot fresh rabbit tracks, and amused by a gaggle of noisy birds gorging on pastel-colored beautyberries. All I lacked was someone to share the fun with!

Realizing that I could be sharing these moments with others led to the creation of my Chase Away the Winter Blues tours, where I teach folks how to maintain a sunny outlook during the bleak winter months while showing off the underappreciated winter Garden to curious and hardy visitors.

The pandemic precludes group tours this winter, but we all need the restorative balm of nature walks, now more than ever. What follows is a guide to some of my favorite wintertime sights, smells, and sounds from the tours. This walk begins at the Flatbush Avenue entrance and heads north, but feel free to improvise and explore; a number of these same plants and others with winter interest can be found throughout the Garden’s 52 acres.

I’ve highlighted plants that are likely to be at their best now through March, but keep in mind that the Garden is ever-changing, sometimes in unpredictable ways; for me, that’s part of the fun!

Just inside the Flatbush Avenue entrance gate, you’ll find a bounty of plants with great winter interest. You may be surprised to see so many flowers in bloom this time of year. Growing close to the ground you may find giant snowdrops, and the aptly named sweet box ‘Fragrant Valley’ cultivar. The ‘Christmas Rose’ hellebores sport white nodding flowers and palm-shaped (“palmate”) leaves; other hellebore varieties with pink, purple, and green flowers lie further down the path.

If snow has blanketed over the groundcovers, don’t despair! While some winter flowers may look a little bedraggled in the extreme cold or hidden under a blanket of snow, most are quite hardy and bounce right back as the weather warms up and the snow recedes. And there are lots of flowering bushes to enjoy!

The glossy-leaved camellias may display flowers in shades of pink, red, and white. In the dozens of times I’ve visited BBG over the past 15 winters, I’ve never failed to find at least one or two camellia bushes in bloom. Perhaps that’s why the cold-hardy camellia plays a prominent role in late winter Lunar New Year celebrations.

A trio of bushes sport petite, fragrant flowers. As you approach the paperbush, take note of its graceful oval form before getting close to enjoy its nodding, cream-colored, composite blossoms; each “flower” is actually a cluster of individual flowers. The buttercup winter hazel has pale yellow, bell-shaped flowers. The witch hazel sports delicately curled, ribbony petals that form star-shaped flowers in yellow, orange, or red.

Flowers are not the only providers of scents to enjoy in the winter Garden! If you can find a fallen spicebush leaf, crush it to release its spicy fragrance. The spicebush’s persistent leaves, which hang on till pushed out by new spring growth, add a lovely rustling sound on a breezy day.

As you pass the admissions booth, keep an eye out for more of these plants along the path. Continue hugging the right-most path to enjoy the pop of reds, oranges, and chartreuse of the dogwood and flame willow bushes. These plants show off their best selves in the winter months, as does the scarlet curls willow a bit further up the road. After the arbor (and more camellias on your right), turn left on the paved pathway, and just before the stone bridge, take the grassy path to the right, at the end of which you’ll find the whimsical scarlet curls willow with its delightfully corkscrew-shaped weeping branches.

Head back to the stone bridge to enjoy the Japanese pink pussy willow whose irresistibly fuzzy, rosy-pink catkins are the male flower. Turn around to take in the colorful haze of the now-distant dogwoods and flame willows.

Retrace your steps back to the main path and turn left, continuing to the Fragrance Garden, on your right. The raised beds of the Fragrance Garden make it easy to enjoy the aromatic leaves of the lovage, fennel, spearmint plants.

The walkway between the Fragrance and Shakespeare Gardens is graced with an arch of fragrant winter honeysuckle. Bend down to enjoy the velvety soft leaves of the lamb’s-ears. Inside the Shakespeare Garden, you’ll need to bend down again to enjoy the scents of the many fragrant herbs

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With its subdued color palate and placid ambience, the winter Garden provides an ideal opportunity to attune our senses to subtle fragrances, textures, sounds, shapes, and hues. A wintertime walk in the Garden can be a restorative experience, whether you’re aiming to keep the winter blues at bay, or just feel that spring can’t arrive soon enough.

If you are experiencing mental health challenges, free, confidential help is available at NYC Well.

Lynne Spevack is 30-year-veteran Brooklyn Botanic Garden tour guide and a licensed psychotherapist.

    Discussion

  • Vivian Farmery February 1, 2021

    What a wonderful and inspiring tour you’ve offered here! Thank you!

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