Other March pages: Trees and shrubs • Birds, insects, frogs and lambs • Weather
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March is the start of spring, but it is not quite yet the flower-filled high spring of April and May. Instead, this is a sort of pre-spring, a time of awakening nature. It starts with only tentative signs of new growth but gathers pace as it goes along. By the end of the month plenty of early flowers are out, cheering up parks, path verges and some woodland floors. Fields and trees still generally look drab and tired, however.
(Now and then there is a cold March where little or none of this happens, however: see Cold years at the bottom of this page for details of these exceptions.)
Daffodils, celandines, primroses and daisies
Snowdrops and crocuses fade in the first half of March, but one doesn’t notice because there are plenty of other distractions. In particular, March is daffodil month: the few that came out in February are gradually joined by others, with numbers reaching their maximum around the third week before mostly fading in the first half of April.
The same goes for celandines (properly lesser celandines) which appear on road and path verges and on woodland floors. Once again, one gets a few in the first week of the month and then they gradually gather force, peaking at the end of March. You have to be out in the middle of the day to see celandines at their best, however: they are sensitive to cold, and in the early morning or late in the afternoon are tightly closed yellow buds.
Another yellow favourite is the primrose, which crops up on wayside verges and in woodland right from the start of the month, and can cover some road or path verges by its end. Some daisies and dandelions appear in the grass – again only a few early in the month, but becoming much more widespread towards its end. (Check that the dandelion is not coltsfoot, which has a superficially similar flower, but no leaves.)
In the woods the star flower in March is the wood anemone – white or blushed with pink, star-shaped when open by day, demure hanging bells in the early morning or late afternoon. They start mid month and are at their best at the month's end, forming intense carpets in some woods (though in both 2015 and 2016 only a very few appeared in March and they were only about 20 percent in flower by the month's end).
Another plant that carpets woodland floors is dog's mercury, which has inconspicuous flowers but which brings a welcome flush of green when full grown at the end of the month. By this time you can also see mats of the diminutive moschatel, whose square greeny-yellow flowers gain it the nickname of 'town hall clock'. You can also see mats of golden saxifrage, with its tiny yellowy-green flowers, as well as possibly some wood sorrel in warmer years.
Other woodland flowers are still to come, but you can see evidence of them. The spiky leaves of bluebells can be seen all month but the flowers are still some weeks away. The same goes for wild garlic (ransoms) whose waxy leaves appear in late February, and which are fully grown (and smelling very garlicky) by the end of March. You may also see the distinctive leaves of woodruff and the silver-striped basal leaves of the argentatum variety of yellow archangel (though not of the ordinary variety which has no basal leaves and seems to grow in a spike straight out of the ground). Ivy-leaved speedwell can form mats alongside woodland paths later in the month and put out buds of its tiny pale violet flowers.
Path and field verges
As well as the celandines, primroses, daffodils and dandelions mentioned above, flowers you can see on path and field verges in March include violets (also a woodland flower), field speedwell and perhaps some white deadnettles and green alkanet. Towards the end of the month, wild strawberry and ground ivy may start to appear if the weather is warm, and maybe some cuckoo flowers.
In the second half of the month there is also a noticeable increase in other vegetation, the leaves of flowers to come later in the spring. Already during the winter the star-shaped stalks of cleavers (aka goosegrass), the triangular waxy green leaves of cuckoo pint, and the fern-like vegetation of cow parsley have made their appearance, and by the end of the month the cow parsley is starting to increase in size. Stinging nettles also continue to grow (and are joined by more new shoots), though are not yet more than a few inches high.
Look even closer on verges and in grassy fields and you can see many other plants which have been patiently waiting out the winter months but which are not flowering yet, including creeping buttercup, meadow buttercup, ribwort plantain, cranesbills, clover, garlic mustard, mallow, herb bennet (aka wood avens), herb robert, white comfrey, cinquefoil, ragwort, spear thistle, dandelion, catsear, hawkbit and yarrow.
These are joined in March by new shoots of red campion, stitchwort, dock, bush vetch, ground elder, foxglove, silverweed, hogweed, and more rarely giant hogweed, which looks almost like rhubarb. You may also see greater celandine (no relation to the lesser celandine mentioned above: it is in fact a kind of poppy), while greater plantain leaves appear on muddy paths or field margins and ivy-leaved toadflax sprouts out of walls. On the margins of streams and rivers the (very poisonous) foliage of hemlock water dropwort is evident and reeds also start to grow. On shingle beaches the plants of rock sea-lavender, sea beet, silver ragwort, wild cabbage and stonecrops can be seen. For photos of many of these plants click here.
Wasteground and arable fields
Back with flowers, there are a number of smaller species that crop up commonly as urban weeds in March, as well as being found in their more natural habitat of arable field margins and other disturbed ground. These include chickweed, field speedwell, shepherd's purse and the unloved groundsel. Hairy bittercress is also a common urban weed throughout the month, and also found on more grassy verges.
Red deadnettle can also form attractive patches on arable fields and broken or bare ground in all sorts of places. The frizzy leaves of mayweed are also visible on urban fields but they do not flower yet. The cabbage-like crop growing in arable fields is oilseed rape - in 2014 it was even in flower at the month's end, but this is usually delayed until later in April - while wheat at this time of year appears like thick-bladed grass. In a warm March charlock and radish may appear late in the month as arable weeds.
By the sea, wallflower (an orange-flowered garden escapee) may be blooming on chalk cliff faces, and by the end of the month alexanders – a sort of yellow-green cow parsley - flowers on path verges. In boggy areas you can see marsh marigold by this time, and by rivers you may see the weird pink spikes of butterbur. Equally weird are the aspargus-like stalks of horsetail, which you may just see at the end of March and which open in April out into the familiar green 'fly whisk' foliage. On railway tracks there may be some oxford ragwort flowering at the end of the month.
Several flowers that are mainly found in gardens but just about qualify as wild flowers can be seen in March – for example, purple periwinkles, which can colonise roadside verges or corners of woods, and lungwort, which also sometimes escapes onto nearby verges. As early as the second week you can the bobble-headed grape hyacinth and towards the end of the month forget-me-nots start to appear, mainly in gardens, but also sometimes in the wild.
In addition you may see three-cornered leek (or three-cornered garlic: both names are used), which look a bit like white bluebells, or the very similar looking spring snowflake, with delicate green triangles at the end of its white petals. I have very occasionally seen another exotic plant from this family - few-flowered garlic - growing wild
March is also when grass starts to grow again, meaning gardeners and park keepers get their mowers out, something that often happens around the middle of the month.
The most notorious exception to everything described above was 2013, when after a reasonable first week, bitterly cold easterly winds set in for the rest of the month (see March weather) putting spring competely on hold. With the exception of a few daffodils and a few primroses, there was no change at all to plant life during the month, including no increase in greenery on path verges, and birdsong died away completely. By the end of March (and indeed into the first week in April) the countryside still looked the same as it had in late February, an effect heightened by the fact that both crocuses and snowdrops lasted all month in many places.
2006 was a similarly blank March, with cold weather lasting till the 23rd and again only a few tentative daffodils and primroses. In the last week flowers started to appear, however. The same was true in 2010, even though temperatures rose into the mid teens by mid month: in this case, a very cold winter seems to have delayed spring growth.
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