Other February pages: Flowers • Birds and insects • Weather
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The tree flowering sequence gets going February, if it has not already started in late January. The month may begin with hazel catkins already out on the trees - as in 2012, 2014 and 2015 - or this may be delayed until early February (eg in 2009, 2011 and 2013). In 2010, 2016 and 2017 they did not appear widely until mid February. Once out, these bushy “lambs tails” give a welcome splash of yellow to the countryside, lasting four to five weeks. If you look closely you can also see the tiny red female flowers in the centre of the leaf buds - these will later become the hazelnuts.
Next in the sequence are alder catkins – easily recognisable because they are the only catkins to appear on trees also bearing cones. They generally lengthen from the shorter buds that have been on the tree all winter into long golden tassels around mid month, but there is much variability from one tree to the next and you may see some right from the start of the month and others not out till the fourth week. An exceptional year was 2010 when most were not fully out till the first week of March.
Sometimes cherry plum blossom also appears in February. There is a cultivated pink-flowered tree version which is seen in parks and suburban streets, and a wild white shrub. In 2004 and 2008 it flowered from mid month and in 2014 in the fourth week. In 2005 it started in mid February but was brought to a halt by cold north winds in the third week and did not resume till mid March. In 2012 and 2017 it appeared at the start of March, in 2015 at the end of the first week of March and in 2006, 2009, 2011 in mid March. In 2010 there was none till late March, and in 2013 flowering started in early March but was then halted by bitterly cold east winds until the first week of April.
2016 was a very exceptional year in that cherry plum blossom started from mid January due to a very mild December and was in full swing at the start of February. Flowering was very staggered that year and lasted in places into early March. In general, however, cherry plum blossom lasts around three weeks, though it can seem as if the plant is shedding some its flowers almost as soon as they appear. It is not necessarily the wind that is to blame for this: wood pigeons and other birds also try to eat the blossom (or buds), causing them to fall to the ground.
On other trees buds become more prominent, turning their crisp winter outlines somewhat fuzzier. This shows that they are ready to put out new leaves or flowers, but this does not happen yet. An exception in February 2014 was hornbeam, which showed widespread budburst (the underlying colour of the flower or foliage showing through the bud) from quite early in the month: this also happened to a very limited extent in 2016 and 2017. Weeping willow may also start to put forward both leaves and catkins at the very end of the month, adding a faint greenish tinge to their fronds when seen from a distance, and at the same time you may see the start of the white (later yellow) blobs that are the male catkins of goat willow or sallow (commonly referred to as "pussy willows").
On some trees last autumn's seeds are still in evidence. In particular many ash trees still have some keys (seed bunches), though they mostly fall to the ground during February, and one can see a few winged seeds hanging from the twigs of lime. Some of last autumn's (open) nut cases are still on beech trees, and some seeds may remain on sycamore and field maple. Notice too the catkins buds (which have been there all winter) waiting to open on birch, as well as its desiccated seed cylinders, some of which may remain from the previous autumn. On a few oak and beech trees (smaller ones or lower branches), as well beech hedges in gardens or parks, there may still be some dead foliage left over from last autumn.
Some shrubs add foliage
While trees are still bare, some shrubs are already adding foliage. Garden privet - the kind that is often used in hedges - is now adding tiny new leaf shoots to the leaves it has kept all winter. Leaf buds on wild privet are usually not yet open, however. You can also see tiny clusters of new leaves on elder, which grow very slowly as the month advances.
Honeysuckle may have quite a lot of leaves if in suburban areas, or just small clusters of new leaves if in woodland or the countryside: but in either case there is usually further foliage growth in February. Buddleia has young leaf growth, but it is has been there since the end of leaf fall and does not grow much this month.
Brambles have the beginning of new leaf shoots sticking at an angle out of their spiny stems, but they do not open yet. On some brambles, particularly ones in exposed positions, the remaining foliage from the previous year has by now turned maroon or almost entirely gone: those in woodland or on sheltered verges still keep some green leaves, however.
In milder years a few hawthorns may also be putting out some tentative new foliage at the end of the month, though this tends to be just a few isolated examples and it is only younger plants that do this. Occasionally you see budburst on blackthorn (the white of the blossom to come showing through the bud) or even actual flowering. Blackthorn flowers look identical to cherry plum ones: the way to tell them apart is that blackthorn has sharp "thorns" (actually dormant side shoots) sticking out at right angles from its twigs. Wild roses - dog rose or burnet rose - may also produce some leaf shoots, but sometimes it is hard to tell if they are true wild plants or garden escapees.
Berries are mostly gone now. If ivy berries have not already disappeared, they are quickly eaten by birds (particularly blackbirds, thrushes and wood pigeons) once they ripen, though some may linger into March. Firethorn (also known as pyracantha) and cotoneaster berries are also popular with birds, but have generally fallen or all been consumed by the start of the month. Dog rose bushes may still have some hips on them and privet (both kinds) some black berries. Early in the month one or two white snowberries may be visible. You also see the occasional cluster of orange berries on stinking iris.
In at least two recent years, forsythia has burst into flower in mid February. This wonderful shrub, mainly found in gardens but also naturalised in some places, is mentioned here because its riot of yellow flowers really cheers up the early spring gloom. Its appearance in February 2008 could be attributed to mild weather, but its flowering in 2011 is more of a mystery: late February was too cold that year for cherry blossom, but not for forsythia. In 2014 forsythia flowers were just starting to appear at the month's end while 2017 saw budburst (the yellow of the flowers showing through the bud casing) at this time. In 2016 a very few started to flower at the beginning of January due to December having been very mild, but they soon thought better of it and did not resume until March.
Forsythia is not to be confused with the much less luxuriant winter flowering jasmine, which has yellow flowers scattered up bare stalks and flowers in gardens all winter - though it is perhaps past its best by now. Likewise, don't confuse cherry plum blossom with winter flowering cherry, again sometimes seen in gardens, which has sparse pink blossom. Another garden shrub worth mentioning at this time of year is viburnum, which keeps some white flowers all winter, again possibly fading a bit by February (in 2016-17 it was very tentative all winter, however, with flowering increasing from mid February and reaching its best in March). Gardens are also where you will see rosemary which can sometimes produce blue flowers in February, though in other years this is delayed till as late as April.
Other tree and shrub activity in February includes inconspicuous flowers on male yew trees (a tiny yellow-brown ball, which in March, or sometimes at the very end of February, will produce clouds of pollen when touched). You may also see what look like clusters of unfolding needles on yew, but these are in fact a gall parasitising the plant. Scattered gorse flowers continue to be seen, and hedgerows on chalk soils are still draped with old man's beard (the seeds of traveller's joy), though this becomes increasingly scarce as the month goes on.
Note also the slow lengthening of the candle-like flower buds on cherry laurel. It is these that distinguish cherry laurel from the otherwise similar looking rhododendron, which has more conventional oval flower buds (tiny at this time of year) in the centre of its leaves. (In 2016 cherry laurel flower spikes were full grown and sometimes even flowering in early January, due to a very mild December, and this continued in places throughout February.)
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