Other March pages: Flowers • Birds, insects, frogs and lambs • Weather
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Hedgerows and trees are still mainly brown and bare in March, but there are some early signs of the big transformation that will take place in April, with the first new leaves appearing.
The month often starts with the appearance of cherry plum blossom, both the ornamental pink park or city street version, and the wild white one in the countryside. But timings here vary dramatically from year to year, depending on how cold it is. In 2004 and 2008 it came out in mid February, in 2014 in the fourth week of February, in 2012 and 2017 at the start of March, in 2015 at the end of the first week, and in 2005, 2006, 2009 and 2011 not till mid month. In 2010 there was none till late in the month, and in 2013 it started to appear in the first week of March and then was kept in suspended animation until the first week in April by extremely cold easterly winds. Most exceptional of all was 2016 when many cherry plums flowered in early February, going over at its end, but some flowered in March as usual and a very few lasted into the first week of April. Once out the blossom usually lasts about three weeks.
After the flowers fade they are replaced by leaves (some younger bushes leaf without flowering), so that in a normal year the wild cherry plum is one of the first shrubs in the countryside to put out new greenery. There is then normally a gap in the blossom sequence until the almost identical looking blackthorn blossom starts in early April, but it is not untypical for some - usually younger or smaller bushes - to flower in late March, as happened in 2007, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.
Some younger blackthorns (or some parts of them) that are not yet mature enough to flower may also go straight to leaf at this time, though generally foliage only appears as the blossom falls in mid April. Blackthorn can be told apart from cherry plum by the thorns sticking out horizontally from its branches, which soften and become covered in blossom when it flowers. At the very end of March one can also see budburst on larger blackthorns - that is, the white of the blossom showing through the buds. In 2017 they burst into full flower at this time.
The gap between cherry plum and blackthorn is often filled by forsythia, a garden shrub that is also found in semi-wild situations. It is suddenly awash with yellow flowers from mid month, but again times vary. It was in flower from the start of the month in 2008 and 2011 but not till the end in 2015. In 2013 it started to come out in the first week and then was kept in suspended animation by the freezing cold until the second week of April. In 2016, while some forsythia started to flower as early as late December in response to a very mild winter up to that point, most did not flower until mid March and was then very tentative until early April. As with blackthorn, forsythia flowers eventually give way to foliage, after about three weeks or so.
Another garden shrub you can sometimes find in the wild is flowering currant, whose pendulous pink flowers appear in the second half. Purely a garden plant, but still a key harbinger of spring, magnolia put out its huge flowers in the last week of March 2012 and 2017 and in a few places in the last week of March 2014, but early April is the more normal time for this. (In 2016 some magnolia started to flower in late December and then went into suspended animation when January proved cold: some then flowered quite early in March while others waited till April). In the same category is kerria japonica pleniflora, a garden plant with button-like yellow flowers sometimes found in semi-wild situations, which properly flowers in April, but sometimes seems to be trying to do so during March. Rosemary may also put out blue flowers in March, though often it waits till April.
On heathland and scrubland, gorse, whose cheerful yellow flowers have slowly been building up all winter, now makes quite a concentrated display. The candle-like flower buds of cherry laurel also continue to lengthen, and by the end of the month they are 6-7 centimetres tall. (In 2014 and 2017 they were starting to flower at the month's end: in 2016 some had been in flower since early January and continued to do so patchily until mid to late April). These distinguish cherry laurel from the otherwise very similar-looking rhododendron, which also produces more conventional, bulb-shaped flower buds in March and sometimes also some new foliage.
In 2012, 2014 and 2017 wild cherry also started to leaf and flower in places at the very end of March, though April is the normal time for this.
Shrubs adding foliage
Though April is the main month when shrubs and trees spring into leaf, the process makes a start in March, and indeed on some plants has got going earlier in the winter. The appearance of leaves on cherry plum once the blossom fades, as well as the occasional early blackthorn foliage, is mentioned above. Other plants in leaf in March include privet and buddleia. Both retain some of its foliage in winter and now add more: on garden privet (the kind found in garden hedges) this process is usually under way when the month starts, while on wild privet (narrower leaves) it starts as the month progress. Buddleia has had small new leaves since shedding its previous year's foliage in October: these grow during March to full size.
Honeysuckle also has clusters of new leaves, having put out leaf shoots as early as December: it can be quite a surprise to see these in the middle of otherwise bare woods. The tentative small leaves that appeared on elder in January increase in size as March goes on.
Other shrubs seem to be testing the air in March. Wild rose can still have the occasional hip on it early in the month, and as the month progresses you can see budburst (the green of leaf showing through the bud) and even tiny new leaves towards the end of the month. At the same time bramble also starts to put out new foliage from the buds on its stems that appeared in January. Snowberry - usually a park or garden shrub but sometimes found in the wild - also may produce leaves towards the month's end.
From mid month some smaller or younger hawthorn bushes also put out new leaves and in 2007, and 2012 larger hawthorns did too. In 2017 they were leafing almost everywhere by the end of the month. It is not usually until April that hawthorns leaf en masse, however.
Other shrubs that may start to produce foliage in March (eg 2017) include lilac, wayfaring tree (with the flowers coming out at the same time), hydrangea, traveller's joy, dogwood, tamarisk (by the sea) and clematis montana (a pink flowered clematis that lives semi-wild on railway line fences and the like). Two garden escapee shrubs - firethorn (aka pyracantha) and cotoneaster - also add new green foliage to that which they have kept all winter.
Hangovers from winter can include a very little bit of old man's beard (the grey fluffy seeds of traveller's joy) which may survive into March, as well as dead leaves on beech hedges (that is, garden or park hedges that have been trimmed in the past year). Some winter jasmine flowers may linger on early in the month. Viburnum can be fading away if it has flowered a lot earlier in the winter, or still be adding new flowers in March if it has not.
The first tree to come into leaf
The first tree to come into leaf is – surprisingly – weeping willow, which can start to put out green shoots and catkins as early as the first week of March and which shines yellowish-green in the landscape by the second or third week. Towards the end of the month it is joined by horse chestnut, whose huge buds open to disgorge weirdly shaped tongues of vegetation that eventually morph into leaflets that hang limp and green. It is rare for this process to be much advanced by the end of March, however.
By this time hazel and hornbeam have also put out small leaves, which at this stage in their growth cycle look almost identical (the two trees are related), and which grow only very slowly. On hornbeams, the leaves are usually preceded by a mass of male catkins, though occasionally the leaves and catkins come out together, or only leaves and inconspicuous female flowers.
You can sometimes distinguish hazel leaves from hornbeam by the remaining dessicated catkins hanging on its branches (which can last until mid March or even beyond, but which generally fall in the first week or so of the month, if they have not already done so in late February). Alder catkins also usually fall early in the month though some can remain on the tree till later in the month. Other seeds you may still see include a few ash keys, field maple seeds and empty seed cases on beech.
Poplars - including hybrid black and lombardy poplars - have had large male catkins encased in erect brown buds all winter: mid March (right at the end of the month in 2015 and 2016, in the second week in 2017) they open and a thick erect catkin emerges (maroon, though they can initially look brown), which then droops, hanging down like a huge tassel. You are more likely to notice them when they fall to the ground, looking like enormous red caterpillars (sometimes because wood pigeons have been trying to eat them). You also get fuzzy red flowers on red maple, an imported species mainly seen in streets and parks.
March is also the month for pussy willow catkins (more correctly, the catkins of the goat willow or sallow and the grey willow), which appear en masse mid month (a bit earlier March in 2007 and 2008, not till the very end of March in 2010, and not till April in 2013), though you may see a few a bit earlier. There are in fact two types of these, with male trees having the characteristic fuzzy white or yellow catkins - they are yellow when fully in flower - and females having green ones. Osier has male catkins similar to pussy willow ones, though more densely packed on the branches.
Crack willows, white willows and hybrids of the two, which are found both as full-sized trees and riverside shrubs, don’t put out leaves and catkins until the very end of the month at the earliest. Again there are male and female trees, the male producing yellow catkins and leaves simultaneously, the female starting to leaf and then producing a slim green catkin shortly afterwards (usually in early April).
By the end of March some sycamore saplings are coming into leaf, though larger trees wait till mid April (the smaller trees are probably primed to leaf earlier to make the most of the sunlight reaching the woodland floor before the leaf canopy opens). By now almost every sycamore has pronounced green buds and seems about to leaf.
Early in the month you can see little flowers on male yew trees which mid month give off clouds of yellow pollen if touched (they are primed to do this all the same time, so there is only a brief time window when they do this). In the second half larch - the only conifer to lose its leaves in winter – puts out soft tassels of new leaves and a very few tiny pink cone-shaped flowers (the female flowers) and little yellow buds (the male flowers).
The last week of hot March of 2012, as well as of rather less hot 2017, also saw the strange male flowers of ash appear - they look a bit like frizzy lettuce. They were joined in both of those years, as well as in 2014, by the yellowy-green flowers of Norway maple, which look from distance like new leaves. The end of March 2017 also saw budburst on apple and field maple. In 2014 new leaves and spherical flowers were appearing on London planes by the month's end.
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