Other January pages: Birds and insects • Weather
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January might seem to be as dead as December, but in fact there are already signs of spring for those with keen eyes and ears. Warmer weather is still a long way away, but nature has definitely started its preparations for it.
Though they are very tentative, the keen-eyed can see signs of spring in January as wildflowers start to grow and establish their territories. Perhaps the most obvious to the casual observer are the shoots of daffodils which appear ramrod-straight out of the ground: this can happen as the start of the month (or even from late December) in milder winters but can be delayed till mid month in colder years.
Look a bit closer at a countryside path verge or woodland floor and you can see a lot of other shoots springing up (for some photos, click here). Some have in fact been there since late October - in this category are cow parsley (which really looks like parsley at this time of year), garlic mustard and cleavers (also known as goosegrass).
There are also tiny dandelion, catsear/hawkbit, herb bennet (aka wood avens) and stinging nettle shoots pushing up through the leaf litter on path verges, joining more established shoots of the same plants that are already in place on verges and (in the case of dandelions, catsears and hawkbits) on grassland. Some of the new nettle shoots may be white deadnettles - if not flowering they look almost identical to stinging nettles.
Joining these from late December onwards are the tiny new shoots of lesser celandine, and during January the waxy curved leaves of cuckoo pint. You can also see primrose shoots and at the very end of the month the grass-like leaves of bluebells - very tiny and inconspicuous at this point.
Late in January one can also see crocuses pushing up their shoots – some were in evidence as early as mid month in 2007, 2008 and 2015, but the fourth week is a more normal time to notice them (eg in 2009, 2102, 2013 and 2014). In snowy January 2010 and none appeared at all, and the same was true in January 2017.
Other flower leaves one sees are perennials, which flowered this year and will last throughout the winter to flower in the next. In grassland these include buttercups - very common - as well as cranesbills, cinquefoil, ribwort plantain, yarrow, clover and daisies. On shady verges you can also see the "argentatum" variety of yellow archangel, while woodruff can be found in woodland.
Also on verges you can see green alkanet (easy to confuse with the much rarer white comfrey) and mallow leaves, which are both perennial, and foxglove and ragwort which are biennial - that is, they grew from seed this year and will flower next year, then die. The rosettes of spear thistles, another biennial, can also be seen, and very occasionally greater celandine (not to be confused with lesser celandine, to which it is unrelated).
On wasteground and in odd urban corners there is quite a lot of chickweed, which looks as if it is about to flower but mostly do not: the same is true of the occasional hairy bittercress plant. Groundsel and field speedwell shoots are also seen in the same habitats. Growing out of walls you can still see ivy-leaved toadflax leaves.
In bare arable fields there are mayweed plants, and new shoots of winter wheat also bring a welcome green twinge to the landscape (they remain as short as they were back in October: it is not until the spring that they shoot up). If you see a cabbage-like crop starting to grow in an arable field it is almost certainly oilseed rape.
By the sea you can see the new foliage of alexanders and the plants of perennial species such as silver ragwort, rock sea-lavender, rock samphire, sea beet, red valerian, tree mallow and stonecrop: also the warty rosettes of bristly oxtongue (which is annual or biennial) and, around Folkestone and Dover, the plants of wild cabbage.
Very cold weather may delay the appearance of some new shoots, but snow - at least a few days of it - has surprisingly little impact. Anything that appears out of the ground at this time of year has evolved to deal with it.
By contrast though a very mild winter may persuade some shoots to come out earlier, they usually seem to hedge their bets. An example was January 2016, which followed the warmest December on record. While some daffodils, primroses and snowdrops were already flowering at the end of December that year, the bulk of them were not, and most daffodil shoots waited till early January to appear.
Likewise though bluebell, cuckoo pint and dog's mercury plants in a few places seemed almost full grown at the end of December 2015, most appeared as normal during January or even towards its end. There were however a good number of dock leaves around and a few hogweed ones - usually both are killed off by the winter cold. Crocus shoots also appeared right from the start of the month, and at the same time here was quite a bit of herb robert foliage (and even some flowers), though a lot of it faded mid month in a cold snap. Hemlock water dropwort leaves (which normally appears in February) also sprung up at the start of January and in cases had become quite full grown by its end.
The first flowers
Some plants actually flower in January. One you might see on roadside verges is winter heliotrope – a not unattractive pink and white flower on a plant with large circular leaves. In gardens and churchyards you can sometimes get vibrant displays of aconites - a yellow flower with a distinctive ruff of leaves. Periwinkle, a spreading plant found in semi-wild situations, may also put out one or two of its purple blooms.
In warmer years there may be isolated daisies in lawns (they do not come out in force until March or April, however), and you might see the occasional red deadnettle (usually on an arable verge or similar bare ground). Field speedwell, chickweed, groundsel or shepherd's purse are also arable weeds but if you see them at all at this time of year they will probably be in urban corners. In 2013 white deadnettles flowered in several spots despite below average temperatures.
But the main January flower is, of course, the snowdrop which hangs its head humbly in the cold. First snowdrops can appear in sheltered locations mid month - I saw my first snowdrop in 2004 on 11 January near Goring, on 15 January near Chilham in 2005 and by Watts Chapel near Guildford on 12 January 2008 – but they really come out in force about a week to ten days later. In cold January 2010 most snowdrops were still just buds by the month's end, however, while by the end of January 2017 most had not even reached that stage. Only a third were in flower by the end of January 2011 and 2013.
At the end of 2015 exceptionally mild weather caused some snowdrops to flower in late December, but most of them remained tentative throughout January. A very few crocuses were also out in late December that year and by mid January about half of them were in flower. Daffodils appeared at the end of December too and were evident in small quantities quite widely throughout January but the majority still remained at leaf stage. In addition there were a few primroses, very occasional dandelions, and some spring snowflake in gardens.
Catkins and early leaves
Another harbinger of spring is when the short hazel catkin buds lengthen into long yellow "lambs tails". This can happen as early as the second week (2014 and 2015), in the fourth week (2012) or not till February (2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2016 and 2017). One or two trees usually come out ahead of the main batch. Pollen from the catkins can cause the first symptoms of hayfever – sneezing, sniffling and eye itching. Look also for the very tiny red female flowers (the catkins being the male ones) which will eventually become the nuts.
Crack willow twigs (and those of some white willow cultivars) shine bright orange in the landscape, as do the more yellowy branches of weeping willows and the reddish twigs of dogwood. Other trees have leaf buds ready for action – black for ash, sticky brown for horse chestnut.
On birch you can see catkin buds but they do not yet flower: this tree may also still have some desiccated seed cylinders. Ash trees still have their seeds - looking like bunches of keys - but they can start to fall off during the month. Beech twigs may still sport empty nut cases, and a few winged seeds - now desiccated - can cling to lime trees. Sycamore and field maple may also have some bunches of seeds clinging to their twigs, though they mostly fall off during the month.
You may also still see some dead oak and beech leaves still on smaller trees or lower branches though most have fallen off long ago. Beech hedges that have been trimmed in the past year may keep dead foliage all winter.
Meanwhile, some plants are already putting out new leaves - for example honeysuckle. It can keep some foliage all winter in suburban spots, though it goes bare in woodland. Some of these woodland honeysuckles then put out new leaves in December while others follow in January. Buddleia never seems to go entirely bare, with new leaf shoots appearing as soon as the old ones fall in late October: they remain on the plant throughout the winter, but do not grow any larger. Garden privet also never loses all its foliage: it stops yellowing in January and you can see tiny new leaves, though it is hard to tell if these are new or just shoots that appeared in late autumn, ready to grow in March.
Wild privet goes thinner than its garden cousin but usually retains some foliage. Elder can sometimes put out new leaf shoots though they grow very slowly, if at all. Bramble leaves stop yellowing and the ones that remain are green - or at least that is true of ones in woodland or on reasonably sheltered verges; in open fields they can go almost entirely bare, with just a few maroon leaves left. As in December, if you look closely, particularly at more sheltered brambles, you may see small white side shoots on their branches that will turn into new foliage in March.
Cherry laurel (which has thick glossy evergreen leaves and so is often mistaken for rhododendron) can be seen starting to push up the rows of candle-like spikes that will later become its flowers. (In the winter of 2015-6, cherry laurel buds appeared in December in response to a very mild winter up to that point, and there were even some flowers out in January). Rhododendron also may start to produce flower buds in January, but they are quite different - a conventional oval bud in the centre of its leaf rosettes. On yew trees you may see what look like clusters of unfolding needles but are in fact a gall parasitising the plant. At the very end of the month you can see tiny orange balls - the new flower buds - appearing on male yews.
In gardens winter jasmine is a bare stalked shrub with yellow flowers and you may see winter flowering cherry trees. Viburnum is a garden shrub that has white flowers this time of year and you can sometimes find blue flowers on rosemary in milder years or more sheltered locations. On heaths and downs gorse has some yellow flowers, as it has done since as far back as October. In January 2016, after a very mild December, cherry plum blossom was also coming out in force by mid January and was full out at the end of the month, but February or March is the more normal time for this.
Draped across hedgerows on chalk soils you can still see old man's beard (the seeds of traveller's joy, which is a wild variety of clematis) though it is perhaps starting to blow away by now. Most berries have fallen or been eaten by birds but in places a few hips and wild privet berries may hang on, and just maybe some spindle, black bryony or a holly berry or two. Thrushes, blackbirds and wood pigeons eagerly await the ripening of ivy berries (poisonous to humans but not for them). The timing of this seems to be very variable: often it occurs in January, though occasionally it can be in February or December. Once the berries are completely black they are quickly consumed.
The orange and red berries that have adorned firethorn (also known as pyracantha) and cotoneaster shrubs since August are also popular food for birds in January - if they have not already been eaten or fallen in December. Is it that they don't taste that nice and the birds only eat them when they are desperate, or is it only now they come to full ripeness? Both of these might be termed semi-wild plants since they are essentially garden escapees. The same is true of snowberry, which may still sport some of its distinctive white berries. The long-leaved plant with a bright cluster of orange berries that you mainly see in gardens but sometimes in the wild is stinking iris.
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