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28 April 2017 I always have mixed feelings as the end of April approaches. It is my favourite month of a year, a time when all nature seems full of fresh hope, so I am sad to see it end. On the other hand the prospect of May and June to come are exciting.
What is certainly true is that we are approaching the end of one phase of spring - the time of woodland flowers - bluebells obviously, but also wild garlic, wood anemones, primroses, lesser celandines. And the end too of the time when path and lane verges are all bright and fresh with new green grass and optimistic flowers growing straight up towards the light.
In May, after the first week or ten days at least, the attention shifts out of the woods into the meadows. Buttercups take over from bluebells as the big natural wonder. On the verges there are still plenty of flowers but everything starts to get a bit untidy and overgrown - though as a compensation this is also the time of great white drifts of cow parsley. If May has one theme, it is excess. The great dollops of hawthorn blossom that are already out in London and which will soon spread to the countryside are typical. There is something a bit excessive, over the top about them.
This is not to say that woodland flowers are quite over yet. Wild garlic (ramsons) are approaching full flowering and the next week should be absolutely the best time for bluebells. In Kent this week I saw both oilseed rape and apple blossom still at their best, though looking closely one could see signs that they were fading. Verges are still full of interesting flowers.
For all these plants it is good news that we had some rain this week. At least in London there seemed to be substantial downpours, enough to soak the ground a bit, even if they were rather shorter than one would have liked. A bit more is promised for the bank holiday weekend. Not enough to satisfy farmers or gardeners, I don't suppose, but a little rain goes a long way when it comes to wild flowers. At least now if May starts warm and sunny I will be able to enjoy it, knowing nature is flourishing.
I am a little more anxious about the effect the cold weather of the last three days has had on butterflies - or other insects for that matter. The butterflies that overwinter as adults - peacocks, small tortoiseshells, speckled woods, brimstones, commas - can presumably respond to cold by going back into a hibernating state. But those that only live at this time of year - orange tips, holly blues - may not have that facility. It had been a wonderful year for orange tips in particular until this cold snap so I will be looking with interest to see how many have survived it.
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21 April 2017 Bluebell time is my favourite time of the year and it is now at its height. The next two weekends should see the most intense displays, particularly since they started a little bit early this year. Some woods, especially in the Chilterns, may last till the first weekend in May, but I would not bank on it.
Experiencing bluebell woods at their best is a surprisingly frustrating business. They either tend to be not quite fully out or slightly starting to go over. There are several spectacular large woods in the south east, but sometimes the greatest thrill is finding a small one you did not know about. You turn a corner and there in the distance is that bluish-purple haze and your heart leaps.
Another variable factor seems to be their aroma. Bluebells definitely do have a scent but sometimes I catch it very strongly and sometimes I can't detect it at all. Does the aroma vary under different atmospheric conditions or at different times of day? Or is it my nose that is erratic?
If you are a photographer there is also the question of what light is best. Sunshine is lovely, of course, and it produces a lovely dappled effect, but it washes out the colour of the bluebells. The most intense tones come on cloudy days, but ones that are not too grey. Bright high cloud is probably the ideal condition.
Bluebells are not the only floral delight at this time of year. There are other woodland flowers - wild garlic of course, but also the lovely yellow archangel (photo) and shy blue spikes of bugle (photo). There is even a special woodland buttercup - the goldilocks buttercup, which looks like this - notice its thin, spiky leaves, which are particularly distinctive.
The verges of country lanes are also full of interest. Cuckoo flower may be fading a bit in places, but garlic mustard (photo) and stitchwort (photo) are just getting into their stride. You can also see bugle on verges, and alkanet and forget-me-nots and white deadnettle. The grass and other vegetation there looks fresh and green and new. None of this lasts - as May goes on the verges get overgrown and straggly and the grass gets seedy. So enjoy it while you can.
Dandelions are also at their peak just now, starting to go over slightly in places. You can see whole fields covered with them like this. You may think this is something you can see all summer, but it is not. The dandelion-like flowers that appear later in the year are catsears and hawkbits - also nice, but it is nevertheless a sad moment when, in a week or two, one walks into a field and sees just the stalks of dandelions and realises they are all gone.
All of this needs moisture to sustain it and the lack of rain so far this month is a bit of a worry. We had a tiny bit last weekend and may get some early next week, so perhaps I should not be concerned. So far, as a friend of mine pointed out, we are not seeing any effects of the dry conditions on grass and flowers. But if they go on much longer, we will do.
14 April 2017 I switched this week from noticing which trees are in leaf to noticing which are not. One easy answer is ash, as this is invariably one of the last trees to leaf. Even they look a bit green at the moment as they are sporting their flowers, which look a bit like frizzy lettuce. There are in fact two types of flower, the male ones (photo) and female. The males have generally fallen by now and the female ones are opening out into delicate fans (photo) that will become the seed clusters.
From a distance these female flowers might make you think the ash is leafing too, but for the most part the foliage has yet to appear. Look closely and you might see some buds starting to break open. In a normal year (if there is such a thing), this would happen at the end of April, but everything this year seems to be at least a week early. Once the leaves appear they look like this.
Another tree not yet leafing - it sometimes does not do so till May - is sweet chestnut, though even here I saw leaf buds on one this week (though plenty of others nearby that were still bare). Beech too is still yet to come out. Once it does, it is a marvellous sight, the new foliage hanging limp from the twigs like drying washing (photo).
I would expect beech to leaf soon because it usually coincides with the start of bluebell season. So synchronised are the two events that I wonder if they respond to the same triggers. Since bluebells are now coming out apace - I have seen one wood up to 70 percent in flower - surely beech must also follow.
The interesting thing about this year's bluebell season is that it looked as if it was going to be earlier. There were lots of flower shoots at the start of April, but two weeks later we are only just starting enough flowers to produce those seas of blue that we love so much. Since mid April is about the time one would expect to this to happen, maybe it is not such an early bluebell year after all. Bluebells also usually overlap by a week or so with wood anemones, which are now starting to fade.
All going well, the best bluebell displays last till the end of the first week of May. The only worry here might be drought. At the time of writing I have not seen rain for two weeks, which means the ground is starting to get rather parched. But maybe by the time you read this we will have had some showers.
Back in the woods, other trees that are in leaf in places but just coming out in others include lime - whose new leaves look like green tear drops - and sycamore. Smaller sycamores have had foliage for some time but some of the big mature trees are only just starting.
In their early stages sycamore leaves can look weird (photo) and they have great big pendulous flowers that are unlike any other wild tree. That makes this a good time of year to distinguish them from other maples.
Even if you can't identify any of these trees, notice the wonderful bright greenery everywhere - "eye-ache green" I sometimes call it. Sunlight makes these shades seem especially lurid (photo). Make the most of this as - like everything else in spring - it only lasts two or three weeks.
For more on the greening of trees in April see this page.