Other April pages: Intro and woodland flowers • Blossom and shrubs • The greening of the trees • Birds • Butterflies, insects and farm animals • Weather
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Away from the woods, there are plenty of flowers on path, road and field verges in April: indeed, country lanes can be at their most cheerful this month. Yellow celandines (properly lesser celandines, as the unrelated greater celandine also flowers this month: see below) are still at their height at the start of the month, blooming happily almost everywhere one looks. They tend to fade away or get smothered by other vegetation in the second week or so, but they can be found in places out right up to the end of the month. Like wood anemones, celandine leaves shrivel away once they have finished flowering to leave no trace that they have ever been there.
Other survivors from March that can still be found on verges are daffodils, violets and primroses. Daffodils are generally gone from city parks by the second week but can survive till later in the month in rural spots. As with celandines, violets and primroses get smothered by other vegetation as much as anything, but can be seen in places right up to the end of April.
Of the verge flowers that appear in April, it is cuckoo flower, garlic mustard and stitchwort that make the best display. Cuckoo flower (otherwise known as lady’s smock) can be seen in force right from the start of the month if March has been mild, and it remains prominent all month. At their best it can create dreamy drifts of pink. (In the east Weald and Chilterns later in the month you can find coralroot, a rare cuckoo-flower relative.)
Stitchwort – a delicate white flower identifiable by its double petals – can also be seen in isolated spots early in April, but it really comes out in force in the second week and slowly gathers strength until by the end of the month it seems to be everywhere. Garlic mustard (which is neither a garlic nor a mustard but whose leaves are supposed to smell a bit of both when crushed) also comes out in the second week or so. Honesty, its more flashy mauve-flowered relative, can sometimes be seen a bit earlier. (It apparently gets its name from its transparent seed pods).
Another common flower of verges and any spare bit of grass in April is the humble dandelion. So familiar it tends to get overlooked, it nevertheless forms intense yellow carpets, with a few flowers at the start of the month and then an increasing profusion, until in the fourth week the sheer quantity can be almost overwhelming. By this time some of the flowers are starting to go over, forming their famous circular fluffy seeds. (Early in the month the superficially similiar coltsfoot is also possible, but this is quite a rare flower in the south east.)
Ground ivy appears early in the month and though its little purple flowers are not dramatic on their own it can form great mats as April progresses. The same goes for germander speedwell, a tiny blue flower that lurks in grass and is found throughout the month. Some field speedwell may also be seen, especially early in the month, and also mats of the very inconspicuous ivy-leaved speedwell, whose tiny lilac flowers are found on disturbed ground.
You can also see the white flowers of wild strawberry all through April (and occasionally the much larger flowered garden variety which has probably self-seeded from discarded fruit), and from about the third week pretty blue spikes of bugle – another flower that can be found in large colonies and which also grows in woods or corners of fields. At the same time herb robert dots shadier verges its with small pink flowers and you may just see some of its relative, dovesfoot cranesbill. Three flowers more associated with woodland - bluebells, wood anemones and (later in the month) yellow archangel - can also sometimes be found on verges, usually but not always escapees from woodland populations nearby.
You continue to see red and white deadnettles – both of which have often already appeared in March. The white ones can make quite large displays on verges later; the red are more common on broken ground. Ordinary stinging nettles rapidly growth taller during the month – they can be up to half a metre high by the end of April. Goosegrass or cleavers (the plant that sticks to your clothes) attain a similar height. As well as new blades of grass growing straight and green and tall, both contribute to the growing lushness of verges. For now, however, this does not looks straggly or unkempt but instead fresh and optimistic.
All sorts of other flowers can also be seen on verges in April. Alkanet is a large-leaved relative of the forget-me-not, both of which can be found on verges, though usually near to houses, with forget-me-nots sometimes making large drifts. It is usually the garden variety that does this, though there are also smaller-flowered wild forget-me-nots, such as field forget-me-not, early forget-me-not and wood forget-me-not. In the second half of April red campion can be seen as well as bush vetch and common vetch - the latter also found in grassland. More rarely you might spot the yellow-flowered greater celandine - nothing to do with the lesser celandine mentioned above but in fact a relative of the poppy.
The curious erotic-looking flowers of cuckoo pint are also very common in the second half (its name has a sexual connotation, as does the alternative name lords and ladies) and near Haslemere you can smell the related skunk cabbage, an aptly-named American invader, well before you see it. While we are on odd plants, spikes of horsetail appear earlier in April, their bulbous tips looking a bit like asparagus, and can start to open up into the familiar fly-whisks later in the month. A rarity on sandy soils is spring beauty, which has tiny white flowers in the middle of large round leaves.
Among the smaller (and less noticed) flowers on verges is tiny white chickweed - found on verges, on odd bits of wasteground and also in grassy fields. It is also common in urban settings, as is wavy bittercress, which otherwise is found on damper verges. It is more luxuriant plant than the hairy bittercress seen all winter, which may also crop up in places in April. Other urban verge weeds include shepherd's purse and groundsel, both also found in arable fields
Towards the end of the month cow parsley may come into flower: often some seems to be half out at the month's end but it rarely achieves the creamy effect of full flowering. (In 2014 isolated examples appeared as early as late March, though the mass flowering was not until the end of April). You may also see a bit of oxeye daisy by rail lines - for some reason it seems to come out a bit earlier here.
In addition, the practised eye can pick out the growing leaves of rosebay willowherb and others of that family, as well as the large leaves of hogweed and giant hogweed, the latter a possible irritant to the skin and looking a bit like rhubarb. Also rhubarb-like are the enormous leaves of burdock. Ground elder leaves colonise verges in April and foxglove and mallow leaves can also be seen. Thistle leaves grow - creeping thistle appearing fresh out of the ground and growing upwards, and the spear thistle rosettes that have been there over the winter becoming more bushy. Sow thistle plants (which look prickly but are in fact soft to the touch) are seen widely and by the end of the month some may be flowering. At the same time bracken is starting to uncurl in the woods.
Arable margins and other special habitats
As they do most of the year, the bare margins of arable fields have a good crop of smaller flowers in April. Red deadnettle, already mentioned above in verges, is one example. Others are so inconspicuous that most people probably never notice them. Some of these double as urban and wasteground weeds, including shepherd's purse, distinctive due to its heart-shaped seed cases, chickweed with its small white flowers, and groundsel, an unromantic weed that can go from seed to flower to seed again in as little as six weeks, and which some botanists reckon is the commonest British flower. Mouse-ear sometimes also crops up on both arable margins and in urban settings.
You can also continue to see field speedwell in arable fields in April, and at the end of the month possibly some pretty pink common fumitory. There are occasional examples of charlock, once a very common arable weed but squeezed out by modern farming methods. The leaves of mayweed are evident but not yet in flower, as are those of greater plantain, which are also seen on paths and other bare ground.
Look out too for the white (or sometimes pale mauve or yellow) flowers of wild radish which particularly likes the margins of oilseed rape fields for some reason. Rape itself turns whole fields an intense yellow when it comes into flower, something that normally happens in late April. But it is a variable crop and is sometimes earlier (at the start of April in 2007 and 2012 and as early as mid March in places in 2014) or not till early May (as in 2006 and 2010). Wheat at this time of year looks like thick-bladed grass, maybe 15-20 centimetres high.
Rarer arable or bare ground weeds include corn spurrey on non-chalk soils and common storksbill on sandy ones - the latter can also be found in grazed turf in such places.
In flooded places you can see clumps of yellow marsh marigolds, while on the edge of streams what looks like an innocent clump of parsley is the foliage of the very poisonous hemlock water dropwort, which sometimes kills cattle. More rarely you may just see the weird pink spikes of butterbur by riversides. In ponds reeds continue to grow.
In warmer years you sometimes find the greyish foliage and white flowers of hoary cress growing by roadsides. It is originally a coastal plant but increasingly flourishes inland by the side of roads that are salted in winter. A plant that is common in coastal areas but sometimes found inland is alexanders, a green-flowered umbellifer (ie, a plant like cow parsley).
Along railway lines you can see Oxford ragwort which comes out much earlier than the field ragwort you see later in the summer: railway clinker is a perfect substitute for its natural home on the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily. On the chalk faces of railway embankments you may find wallflower - a bright orange garden escapee that also sometimes grows on chalk sea cliffs. Towards the end of the month red valerian can be starting to flower in coastal areas and out of garden walls inland.
Grassland and downland
One place that is not very good for wild flowers in April is downland, where not much happens till later in May. But you can see cowslips (a close relative of the primrose) throughout the month, sometimes in great numbers, and - if you look closely - the tiny blue flower clusters of milkwort. Also verge flowers such as violets, ground ivy, wild strawberry and germander speedwell, and a miniature species of dandelion.
Look more closely and there are plenty of signs of flowers to come, including the pale-backed leaves of silverweed, the five-lobbed foliage of cinquefoil, aromatic shoots of marjoram, the distinctive whorls of hedge bedstraw and the leaves of rough hawkbit.
April also not a great time for meadows – that honour also belongs to May – though buttercups can start to appear at the end of April (often bulbous buttercups, which appear a bit in advance of meadow and creeping buttercups, the other two species). Some grass (usually meadow foxtail) starts to put out seed heads at the same time. Otherwise the main meadow flower is the dandelion, which achieves high concentrations in some fields late in the month, as well as in mown grass such as parks. Mown grass also sees great numbers of daisies build up as the month goes on, and they are found in the wild on well-trodden grassy paths and in closely-cropped pasture fields.
In the second half you can also get quite a lot of germander speedwell in grassland and towards the end mouse ear, which has flowers like chickweed but less foliage and on longer hairy stalks. At the very end of the month you may see ribwort plantain, whose flowers look more like a grass seed head. Dock and thistle leaves become increasingly prominent in rougher pasture.
The new blooms in gardens brighten up early spring, and several manage to cross the boundary and be classed as semi-wild species. The most obvious example are forget-me-nots, already mentioned above, which achieve great concentrations in many flowerbeds. Another blue favourite is grape hyacinth with its bobble-heads, which started to flower in March and which fades by the third week.
In cracks in walls, ivy-leaved toadflax with its dainty purple flowers can be in flower right from the start of the month, and is followed mid month by another crack-filler yellow corydalis - a relative of common fumitory.
Summer snowflake is a common garden escapee with white bells hanging from bluebell like plants, and there are other similar blooms such as three-cornered leek (also called three-cornered garlic) and the weird few-flowered garlic, which has one enormous leaf and individual flowers on stalks from a central hub. These all tend to be over by the third week of April, but can survive in places well into May.
You can also see lungwort, a plant with spotted leaves and pink and blue flowers that hang in curling clusters: it starts in March and lasts into the early part of April at least and can be found on verges near houses as well. It is a relative of comfrey and which has similar blooms and whose white comfrey version can be seen this month in wild places too. Russian comfrey (purple and blue flowers) and hybrids of it such as hidcote blue (white and blue flowers) or hidcote pink (white and pink flowers) also sometimes form big patches on verges near gardens, as does periwinkle, whose purple flowers last until at least mid-April and sometimes are even found wild in woodland.
In 2013, following a bitterly cold March, the countryside at the start of April had no more signs of spring than in mid February, and nearly all events described above were two to three weeks late. Spring really started in the second week in April, when nightime temperatures finally rose above zero. Lesser celandines did not come out in force until then, and they then came all in a rush and lasted till the end of the month. The same was true of violets. Cuckoo flowers, stitchwort, dandelions, daisies, germander speedwell and ground ivy then came out in the third week, and garlic mustard and honesty in the fourth week - all these were not at their best till the end of the first week of May.
Daffodils and primroses had done somewhat better in the March cold, but were still not at their best till the second week. The daffodils then lasted till the end of the third week, and some primroses into the first week of May. Wild strawberry also proved a bit tougher, but was fairly rare in the first half of April. White and red deadnettle, which had not appeared at all in March, remained scarce throughout the month, only really taking off in the first week of May. Stinging nettles were still just a few centimetres tall mid month, and one wondered if they were big enough for butterflies to lay eggs on.
A great list of normal April flowers were not seen until May, including alkanet, bugle, cuckoo pint, any of the mustards (though bittercresses did OK from the second week), comfrey (though lungwort was seen), beaked hawksbeard, red campion and all of the vetches. On downland, cowslips did not appear till the fouth week. In gardens forget-me-nots and grape hyacinths were not seen until the second week (with the latter lasting till the first week of May) and clematis montana did not flower at all. Rosemary did not flower till May for the most part and oilseed rape was not out full out till the second week in May.
In 2016 a very warm November and December 2015 had produced some very early signs of spring - such as daffodils flowering as early as January and scattered bluebells appearing at the start of March. But cool weather in February and March, followed by a period of bitter northerly winds towards the end of April, made many verge flowers late. While a few cuckoo flowers and stitchwort came out at the start of April, they were not out in force until the last week of the month, and garlic mustard was not in flower at all until that time. Germander speedwell did not appear till the last week either, bush vetch and common vetch not till the first week of May, and bugle and red campion not till the second week of May. Herb robert was very occasional right up to the end of April and I did not see an open cuckoo pint flower until the end of the first week in May, though I saw its flower spikes in the second half of the month.
More April pages:
- Intro and woodland flowers
- Blossom and shrubs
- The greening of the trees
- Butterflies, insects and farm animals
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