On Feb. 5, daylight will lengthen to 10 hours in Hancock County. During the ancient Celtic festival of Imbolc, candles were lit to herald the light, and to salute the sprouting of seeds, the birth of lambs and the lactation of the ewes (“Imbolc” translates as “ewe milk”). In French-speaking countries crèpes — round like the sun — are served at La Fête de la Chandeleur. GETTY IMAGES PHOTO

Kitchen Garden: Welcome back the light on Candlemas Day

Two things about winter dampen the spirits: it’s cold, and it’s dark. Fortunately, the two do not precisely go hand-in-hand. During the darkest time, the Winter Solstice on Dec. 21, the Earth still holds some of the sun’s warmth. By the coldest time, in late January, days are noticeably longer. The sun has begun to return.

Winter is hard on plants, too. The optimum growth temperature for most of them is 75 degrees. Among vegetable crops, there are hardy greens whose leaves prefer cool weather, and whose leaves remain succulent and edible down to 15 degrees — spinach, young beet greens and mâche for example. But even these survive in a state of suspended animation, waiting out the winter. Put them in a cold frame and they’ll do much better, but growth is still slow.

Often, it’s the long nights, as much as the cold, that spell “winter” to a plant, since day length is sometimes the trigger for growth. The sun also is dimmer and more diffused, because it comes to us at a lower angle, passing through more of the Earth’s atmosphere.

I think there is something beautiful about winter light, especially in northern countries like the British Isles, where the pinkness of sunrise and sunset never quite leaves the sky. But cloudy days — of which Europe has many in winter — are gloomy. Visit a European city in winter and you may feel colder than you do here, despite the way the Gulf Stream tempers their climate. Most of Europe is well above the line of latitude here in coastal Maine.

European street trees are often pollarded, that is, cut repeatedly at the same spot, so that the shortened branches end in bulbous knobs. The practice originally yielded an abundance of fresh wood for fuel, fodder, building and crafts.

Nowadays it seems more for ornament, or to let more light in through by removing branches.

We assume that a deciduous tree will let in plenty of light, but bare trees cast a surprising amount of shade, a fact worth noting when siting a cold frame, greenhouse, or the windowsill on which you grow herbs. Watch the shadows in your yard and note where the precious hours of winter sunlight occur.

When the sun does come back, it is usually some combination of day length and warmth that sets plants to germinating, growing or flowering. Lettuce, given supplemental soil heat, will produce leaves even in short days, but chives and parsley are daylight-dependent, and spring up quite suddenly when the day has reached a crucial length, even if the temperature has been constant.

For most plants affected by day length, the magic moment is the return of the 10-hour day, which in Hancock County occurs on Feb. 5. It is a joyous sight. Even if it’s the coldest day yet, all the houseplants are perking up and the rosemary is putting forth new growth.

Shouldn’t there be a festival to usher in the 10-hour day, as there once was for the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox? In the old days, there were just such celebrations during the first week in February, which is about when the 10-hour day returns in much of Europe. During the Celtic festival of Imbolc, on Feb. 2, candles were lit to herald the light, and to salute the sprouting of seeds, the birth of lambs and the lactation of the ewes (“Imbolc” translates as “ewe milk”). Honor was paid to the ancient fertility figure Brigid, later renamed St. Bridget by the Church when the feast became Candlemas. Rhymes were chanted that evoked the iffyness of the weather: “If Candlemas be fair and bright/come winter have another flight./If Candlemas brings clouds and rain/ go, winter, and come not again.”

The sole remnant of this feast in our country is Groundhog Day, which celebrates the cautious emergence of animals from hibernation, on a day when the weather often teeters precariously between winter and spring. Buds may be swelling, but is it just a tease? In ancient Britain the creature was originally a bear, who left his cave and announced the lengthening of the days with a triumphant fart on Feb. 4, a day now consecrated to St. Blaise, the patron of sore throats. St. Valentine’s Day, on which the birds traditionally chose their mates, also falls within this period in which spring is glimpsed.

Some of these early February festivals survive as food traditions. In French-speaking countries crèpes — round like the sun — are served at La Fête de la Chandeleur. And Russians still celebrate Maslenitsa — “Butterweek”— essentially a Mardi Gras feast in which round, hot, golden blini are slathered with butter and eaten with vodka to toast the promised bounty of crops, livestock and children.

I can’t think of a better way to rouse one’s neighbors from their winter burrows. Get some fresh eggs from a local farm where even the oldest hens are starting to lay again. Invite everyone over, light all the candles and make blini, sprinkled with the fresh new growth from potted chives or parsley. And tons of butter.

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Gardener’s Cookbook.”

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