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December woodland and hedgerow

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Put your cursor over any photo to see its caption, or click here to see more December photos.

December is the deadest of all the months in the natural world - midwinter from a nature point of view, if not weatherwise. But it is not entirely lacking in things to see. With so many plants in hibernation it is interesting to notice those that are still active, and the lack of foliage opens up views that are otherwise hidden and makes it easier to see birds and wild animals. Bare branches also reveal the structures of trees and where birds have nested in them.

That is assuming that the leaves have in fact fallen. Oaks not infrequently keep some dead leaves on their branches after the end of leaf fall and these can last into December. Mostly these are blown off fairly quickly but some may last till the end of December and into January. Beech hedges that have been trimmed in the previous year can also keep dead foliage all winter, and very occasionally you see some dead leaves on sheltered boughs on mature beeches too.

In some years - for example 2002, 2003, 2005, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 - foliage on other trees remains into December. In 2006 a few leaves of field maple, Norway maple and weeping willow and London plane survived into the first week of the month, while in 2013 it was hazel, larch and birch, along with dribs and drabs on field maple, lime, hornbeam and sycamore. In 2014 it was hazel and larch, field maple, weeping willow, lime and sweet chestnut, while in 2016 there was some lingering birch, plus dribs and drabs on hazel, weeping willow, white willow and field maple.

In 2015 sunshine and cold nights in mid October caused the bulk of leaf fall to be over by the end of the first week of November, but a good number of trees then retained foliage until the the first week of December, including oak, hazel, weeping willow, field maple and larch, with dribs and drabs on sycamore, lime and alder.

The latest year of all was 2005, when there was about 30 percent leaf cover - including some green leaves - at the start of December. Beech, alder, field maple, London plane and especially oak foliage was in evidence as late as the 11th of December.

As in November, woodland paths are still thickly covered in leaf litter, mitigating the effect of the winter mud somewhat. In beech woods fallen leaves can completely obscure the route of paths. But as the month goes on some rotting takes place (assisted by earthworms, who draw leaves down into the soil and consume them) and muddy patches start to show through.

The woodland in winter

Once the leaves are gone, the buds of next year's leaves are revealed, seemingly ready to burst open at any moment, but in fact not due to do so for another four months. One can amuse oneself by identifying the trees from these buds - ash, for example, has black buds and twigs that turn upwards at the end, while horse chestnut has sticky brown buds and hybrid black poplar rather prominent reddish ones. Other trees can be identified by the dead leaves that lie beneath them, or by their distinctive outlines - oaks being one example.

Meanwhile, hazel, alder and birch have already put forward the buds of their catkins: they have in fact been there since July. Alder is easily recognisable as the only tree with both catkins and cones, while the myriad straight shoots rising up from the ground on a typical hazel are also very characteristic. Both of these see their catkins flower in February (or sometimes late January), but the birch catkins will lie dormant till late March

The twigs of certain varieties of white willow have a distinctive orange tinge (more noticeable in sunshine), while weeping willow twigs turn a more yellowy colour. You can also look out for the round balls of mistletoe high up in the branches of trees, usually on woodland edges or in open parkland. It grows particularly on poplar and lime but apparently also on apple and willow. At this time of year you can clearly see its white berries, a popular food for mistle thrushes, who thereby spread its seeds to new trees. The locations and structures of birds nests are also visible - it is interesting to see what sites they chose.

A few trees also retain some seeds - notably ash, on which big bunches of "keys" hang down. London planes also hold onto their globular seed cases after their leaves have gone, and limes keep some of their (now desiccated) winged seeds. On beech trees you can see empty nut cases on the end of the twigs and birch may retain some of its dried seed cylinders. In some years the seeds of field maple and sycamore may also remain on their twigs.

Hedgerow and shrubs

Hedgerows are drab and brown in December - but not entirely. If you look closely you will see that not all shrubs and plants have lost their leaves. Ivy is one notable evergreen, as are rhododendron and cherry laurel. The latter two both have big rubbery leaves and are hard to tell apart until they start to put out buds, which rhododendron sometimes does in late December. In the very mild December of 2015 cherry laurel also put out flower buds from early in the month - they look like tiny candles, sticking vertically upwards - and in more normal years you may just see some doing this at the month's end.

Notice also that garden privet still retains quite a bit of foliage - some of it yellowing. Its wild version - which has more pointed leaves - also yellows and goes much barer, but usually hangs onto a few leaves. Elder may also keep a very few leaves, usually at the top of the plant, and in milder winters, if you look very closely, may be showing budburst (that is, a tiny bit of green colour showing through buds, the first stage to putting out new leaves) as early as mid December.

Bramble keeps some leaves too - at least when it is growing under the cover of trees: out in the open it tends to leave nearly all its foliage as the month goes on. In either case some of the remaining leaves may be showing yellow or maroon tints. Towards the end of the month you may see new leaf buds appearing on its stems, ready for the spring.

Buddleia already has new leaf shoots - it put these out as soon as the old year's leaves had fallen in late October: they do not grow any bigger until March, however. Honeysuckle tendrils, even out in the middle of the woods, can also have tiny new leaflets from quite early in December. More suburban ones never go bare at all, keeping quite a bit of foliage from the autumn as well as adding new shoots.

On heathland, gorse can sport some yellow flowers, as it has done since October. In hedgerows on chalk soils there are also the fluffy white seed heads of traveller's joy, which give it its winter name of old man's beard. Notice too the bright red twigs that mark out that otherwise little noticed shrub, dogwood.

Flowering garden shrubs that get noticed this month include winter flowering jasmine, with its yellow flowers on bare stalks, and winter flowering cherry, whose pink blossom fools some into thinking spring blossoming cherries have come out early. Viburnum also put out its white flowers as early as October, which continue to be seen throughout December.

Berries

Berries have become fairly scarce by the start of December, with birds, squirrels and mice having consumed most of them. Blackbirds and thrushes are particularly enthusiastic berry eaters.

Any sloes (blackthorn) or haws (hawthorn) remaining at the start of the month tend to be shrivelling or rotting anyway: they fall to the ground as the month goes on. More occasional sightings - again more likely early in the month - are the fluted pink berries of spindle, black privet berries (usually on wild privet), or red strings of black bryony, a hedgerow climber. Yew berries survive into December some years but in others are all gone by late November: if you look very closely you may also see the tiny buds of next year's flowers on male trees.

A few red hips on wild rose bushes last throughout the month - because they are less palatable or harder to reach? Holly berries, meanwhile, are at their peak, which is one reason why they feature in Christmas decorations. They seem to disappear fairly rapidly at the end of the month, however.

Perhaps the most abundant berries of all in December are those of ivy, but they are not yet ripe, remaining green with a black cap. Some may be starting to ripen to to full black at the month's end, but most will not do this until well into January, or even later. When they do ripen, they are food for thrushes, blackbirds and wood pigeons. (To humans the entire plant is poisonous.)

In gardens and parks the bright orange berries of firethorn (also known as pyracantha) and the red berries of the cotoneaster survive, though blackbirds and thrushes do start to eat them when other food is gone (or perhaps when they ripen: both can start to fall to the ground in December), and so some bushes can be already stripped by the end of the month.

Note also the prominent white berries of the snowberry: they have in fact been there since as early as July but suddenly stand out now that the plant's foliage has fallen off. Another berry that you may notice when you never noticed the plant in flower are the bright orange berries on stinking iris, whose fronds look a bit like oversized daffodil leaves.

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