Other December pages: Flowers • Birds and insects • Weather
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December is the deadest of all the months in the natural world, but it is not entirely lacking in things to see. With so many plants in hibernation it is interesting to notice those that are still active, and the lack of foliage opens up views that are otherwise hidden and makes it easier to see birds and wild animals. Bare branches also reveal the structures of trees and where birds have nested in them.
That is assuming that the leaves have in fact fallen. In 2002, 2003, 2005, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 some lasted into December. In 2006 a few leaves of oak, field maple, Norway maple and weeping willow and London plane remained into the first week of December, while in 2013 it was mainly oak, hazel, larch and birch, along with dribs and drabs on field maple, lime, hornbeam and sycamore. In 2014 it was hazel and larch, with a very few leaves on oak, field maple, weeping willow, lime and sweet chestnut.
In 2015 sunshine and cold nights in mid October caused the bulk of leaf fall to be over by the end of the first week of November, but a good number of trees then retained foliage until the the first week of December, including oak, hazel, weeping willow, field maple and larch, with dribs and drabs on sycamore, lime and alder. In 2016 it was mainly oak, with some lingering birch, plus dribs and drabs on hazel, weeping willow, white willow and field maple.
The latest year of all was 2005, when there was about 30 percent leaf cover - including some green leaves - at the start of December. Beech, alder, field maple, London plane and especially oak leaves were in evidence as late as the 11th of December.
Note that after the end of leaf fall, some oaks retain dead leaves on their twigs. Mostly these are blown off fairly quickly, but some last till the end of December and into January. Beech hedges that have been trimmed in the previous year can also keep dead foliage all winter, and very occasionally you see some dead leaves on sheltered boughs on mature beeches too
The woodland in winter
Once the leaves are gone, the buds of next year's leaves are revealed, seemingly ready to burst open at any moment, but in fact not due to do so for another four months. One can amuse oneself by identifying the trees from these buds – ash, for example, has black buds and twigs that turn upwards at the end, while horse chestnut has sticky brown buds and hybrid black poplar rather prominent reddish ones. Other trees can be identified by the dead leaves that lie beneath them, or by their distinctive outlines - oaks being one example.
Meanwhile, hazel, alder and birch have already put forward the buds of their catkins: they have in fact been there since July. Alder is easily recognisable as the only tree with both catkins and cones, while the myriad straight shoots rising up from the ground on a typical hazel are also very characteristic. Both of these see their catkins flower in February (or sometimes late January), but the birch catkins will lie dormant till late March
The twigs of certain varieties of white willow have a distinctive orange tinge (more noticeable in sunshine), while weeping willow twigs turn a more yellowy colour. You can also look out for the round balls of mistletoe high up in the branches of trees, usually on woodland edges or in open parkland. It grows particularly on poplar and lime but apparently also on apple and willow. At this time of year you can clearly see its white berries.
A few trees also retain some seeds - notably ash, on which big bunches of "keys" hang down (if they have formed at all, which some years they do not) - and sycamore and field maple which retain clusters of their winged seeds (easy to mistake for ash seeds at a casual glance). London planes also hold onto their globular seed cases after their leaves have gone, and limes keep some of their (now desiccated) winged seeds. On beech trees you can see empty nut cases on the end of the twigs and birch may retain some of its dried seed cylinders.
Hedgerow and shrubs
Hedgerows are drab and brown in December – but not entirely. If you look closely you will see that not all shrubs and plants have lost their leaves. Ivy is one notable evergreen. Its berries are green with a black cap during December, but may be starting to ripen to fully black at the very end of the month, though often they often don't do so until January or even later. When they do, they are food for thrushes, blackbirds and wood pigeons, though to humans the entire plant is poisonous.
Rhododendron and cherry laurel are two other obvious evergreens, with their big rubbery leaves. They are hard to tell apart until they start to put out buds, which rhododendron sometimes does in late December. In the very mild December of 2015 cherry laurel also put out flower buds from early in the month - they look like tiny candles, sticking vertically upwards - and in more normal years you may see some doing this at the month's end.
Notice also that garden privet still retains quite a bit of foliage - some of it yellowing - and sports black berries where it has not been trimmed. Its wild version - which has more pointed leaves - also yellows and goes much barer but usually hangs onto a few leaves. Elder may also keep a very few leaves, usually at the top of the plant, and even more surprisingly, if you look very closely, may be showing budburst (that is show a tiny bit of green colour showing through buds, the first stage to putting out new leaves) as early as mid December.
Meanwhile bramble keeps a few leaves (like privet, some may still be showing yellow or maroon tints in December) and some years put out new leaf buds on its stems. Buddleia already has new leaf shoots - it seems to put these out as soon as the old year's leaves have fallen in late October. Honeysuckle also has new leaves though the picture here is perhaps confused by garden varieties, which escape onto some suburban verges and can keep a full set of foliage in winter: true wild honeysuckle of the kind found in woodland or countryside hedges, just has very small leaves at this time of year.
Flowering garden shrubs that get noticed this month for the burst of winter colour they bring include winter flowering jasmine, with its yellow flowers on bare stalks, and winter flowering cherry, whose pink blossom fools some into thinking spring blossoming cherries have come out early. In 2014 and 2015 viburnum also put out its white flowers as early as October, which then lasted throughout December, but it more normally flowers later in the winter.
As well ivy berries and occasional black privet berry as mentioned above, you can still see some others in December. The red berries of holly are at their peak, which is one reason why they feature in Christmas decorations, but they seem to disappear fairly rapidly at the end of the month. Red hips on wild rose bushes can last throughout the month, however.
Sloes (blackthorn) or haws (hawthorn) remaining at the start of the month are starting to look past their best, shrivelling or rotting and falling to the ground during the month. Other more occasional sightings - again more likely early in the month - are the fluted pink berries of spindle or red strings of black bryony, a hedgerow climber. Yew berries can survive into December some years but in others are all gone by late November
In gardens and parks the bright orange berries of firethorn (also known as pyracantha) and the red berries of the cotoneaster survive, though blackbirds and thrushes do start to eat them when other food is gone (or perhaps when they ripen: both can start to fall in December). Note also the prominent white berries of the snowberry: they have in fact been there since as early as July but suddenly stand out now that the plant’s foliage has fallen off. Another berry that you may notice when you never noticed the plant in flower are the bright orange berries on stinking iris, whose fronds look a bit like oversized daffodil leaves.
There are also the fluffy white seed heads of traveller’s joy, which give it its winter name of old man’s beard, and notice too the bright red twigs that mark out that otherwise little noticed shrub, dogwood. On heathland, gorse can sport some yellow flowers, as it has done since October.
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