As winter solstice approaches, cold weather has enveloped the country – earlier than usual and colder too than in recent years. The cold front changed our sunny winter days to overcast, and last night brought some rain.

Here in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) winter is our dry season so any rain is welcome, but coupled with the cold it means that there is no chance of warming up in the morning sun. I think it was not only the vervet monkeys who visited our garden this morning who found that tough.

The overcast skies and the rain that caused the vervets monkeys to huddle together are in strong contrast to the previous winter days as evidenced in the photo below of vervets engaged in relaxed grooming in winter sunshine last week.

Vervet monkeys grooming in the sunshine, KwaZulu-Natal

The birds are relatively reticent this morning without the sun. In the autumn and winter months we are visited by bronze mannikins (see below) as well as red-backed mannikins, and in the early mornings they can often be seen in the trees on bare branches taking in the sunshine.

Two bronze mannikins on a branch in the sun, KwaZulu-Natal

Where we live in KZN the indigenous deciduous trees change colour rather quickly and drop their leaves comparatively suddenly. The fall of leaves is often in response to the first really cold weather and in many winters this may be only late in the season. The current cold weather, with snow in some of the mountain regions, which we are experiencing now in June is unusually early.

Although we do not have the spectacularly colourful autumns that I associate with the northern hemisphere, we do have many lovely winter flowers – often brilliant in the winter sunshine – to brighten up the dryness of winter.

Some of these flowers I have featured before, but they are all worth another look. All of these photos of flowers (and some leaves too) were taken in our garden during June this year. The ones in the sunshine were taken last week, and the others were taken yesterday when it was overcast, and a few this morning when it was still raining lightly.

Close-up of the flowers of the krantz aloe

A close-up of unopened flowers of the Krantz aloe (Aloe arborescens)

Green and white flower buds of an albuca plant

The green and white flower buds of one of the Albuca species

Tangle-veined fly taking nectar from a flower on a ribbon bush

Tangle-veined flies (of the Nemestrinidae family) are often seen nectaring at the autumn-into-winter flowers of the ribbon bush (Hypoestes aristata)

Grapevine leaf autumn colours

We have a non-indigenous grapevine over our back deck – perfect for shade in summer, and it helpfully sheds its leaves starting in the autumn to let in the sun in winter

Flowers of the red-hot poker (Kniphofia praecox)

Past their best and a little eaten by something these flowers of the Kniphofia praecox show up brightly against the pale yellow bark of a fever tree (Vachellia xanthophloea previously Acacia xanthophloea)

Purple flower of the bush violet, KwaZulu-Natal

Glowing against dead wood in the light of an overcast sky, is a lovely purple flower of the bush violet (Barleria obtusa or possibly Barleria repens)

Yellow flowers of the fence aloe, South Africa

Standing tall against the cloudy sky are flowers of the fence aloe (Aloiampelos tenuior, previously Aloe tenuior)

Flowers of a hen-and-chickens plant, South Africa

The dainty flowers of one of the 38 Chlorophytum species that are found in South Africa. They are commonly known as hen-and-chickens or spider plants

Leaves in winter of the Natal bottle brush (Greyia Sutherlandii)

A precocious green shoot amongst dry winter leaves on a Natal Bottlebrush (Greyia Sutherlandii), which is one of the first plants to flower in late winter into early spring. A small coronet of flower buds can be seen developing at the top of the stalk to the left of the photo

Flowers of the van balen's aloe

Unopened slightly striped flowers on the conical raceme of a van balen’s aloe or crawling octopus plant (Aloe vanbalenii)

Fallen leaves of the white stinkwood tree (Celtis africana).

Fallen leaves, mostly of the white stinkwood (Celtis Africana) softly carpeting the ground forming a natural mulch

Roots and trunk of the white stinkwood tree, South Africa

The roots at the base of the slightly fluted trunk of a white stinkwood tree

Woodland plant in flower, the white paint brush, KwaZulu-Natal

Despite their leaves still showing evidence of being munched by the large number of koppie foam grasshoppers that emerged in the garden in late summer, the white paint brush (Haemanthus albiflos) plants growing under the trees in our mini woodland still produced their lovely flowers

Flower of the Haemanthus albiflos, white paint brush plant, KwaZulu-Natal

It is obvious from the flower why the shade loving Haemanthus albiflos is known as the white paint brush

Flowers of the Wild Dagga (Leonotus leonurus),

The normally erect Wild Dagga (Leonotus leonurus), past its best with the flowers starting to go to seed, is bowing down under the weight of the rain. The rain drops still falling this morning resemble small needles in the photograph

We live in a subtropical zone and winter solstice does not have the same resonances as it does in colder climates such as in northern regions of Europe. Apart from the fact that our winter temperatures are relatively mild, the difference in the day length between winter solstice and summer solstice is not all that marked. The difference is only 3 hours 48 minutes, whereas in London, UK, for example, the difference is 8 hours 49 minutes.

To extend the comparison, here in KZN winter solstice sunrise is at 06.52 and sunset is at 17.07 in June, and in London winter solstice sunrise is at 08.03 and sunset is at 15.53.

Summer solstice sunrise here is at 04.55 and sunset is at 18.58 in December, and in London summer solstice sunrise is at 04.43 and sunset is at 21.21 in June (source

So although we don’t have any rituals to celebrate winter solstice, to my knowledge at any rate, the shortest day and the longest night of the winter solstice do mark a turning point where we can look forward to longer days and the prospect of spring ahead.

Currently, the Covid-19 pandemic is yet to peak in South Africa. Projections are that infection rates and the number of deaths will peak in the worst affected Western Cape late in June. How things escalate in other provinces is less clear at this stage. However, as the winter pivots at solstice, we can hope that the pandemic pivots too and that eventually we can look forward to brighter days.

Kranz aloe flowers in close-up, South Africa

Posted by Carol