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February flowers

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February is a month when the countryside is brown and drab, the mud seems unending, and winter is reluctant to loosen its grip. Yet the weather can sometimes have hints of spring, and if you keep your eyes peeled you can see signs of life returning.

Snowdrops are the star attraction this month. Brought to England in Tudor times, they traditionally came out on Candlemas, 2 February. These days you can see scattered ones quite early in January, but it is not usually until the end of that month that they come out in force. They are then at their best in February, adorning gardens, churchyards and village verges in their demure little clusters, as well as occasionally being found in wilder places such as woods. Some are going over as the month ends, the first poignant die back of the year.

This is also the peak time for crocuses. Almost always found in parks and gardens rather than in the wild, they pop out of the ground in the last week of January (or as early as mid January some years) and grow frantically upwards. They are usually starting to flower at the beginning of February and then last for the rest of the month. When a sunny day tempts them to open into delicate stars, it feels as if spring has arrived. (Crocuses did not appear till the second week of February in 2009 and 2017, and the third week in 2010. In 2016 some came out in late December and they were fading from mid February onwards, while in 2020 they were at their best at the start of the month, fading from the fourth week onwards).

As February progresses you might also see some lesser celandines, primroses or daffodils in flower on path and road verges but these are mostly isolated examples in sheltered spots: in cold years they may not appear at all. (In 2016 there were good numbers of all three throughout February, but these had come out in late December and early January due to a very mild December: 2020 saw a few daffodils out quite widely from the second week onwards, with half of them out by the end of the month). Likewise, some daisies and even the odd dandelion may be seen, and towards the end of the month maybe some tiny purple sweet violets.

None of these are yet flowering en masse, however. As the old adage says, spring has not come until you can cover nine daisies with your foot - something that doesn't happen till late March or early April (though in 2020 this happened as early as 2 February, and in 2019 it also came close in places). The dandelions one sees tend to be stunted, growing low to the ground with almost no stems. Make sure what you are seeing is not coltsfoot, however: it has a dandelion-like flower, but no leaves (at this time of year, at least) and can appear towards the end of mild Februaries.

Most years you also see red deadnettle and in milder years you can come across field speedwell, as well as small amounts of chickweed, shepherd's purse and groundsel. All of these can be found on the edges of arable fields (or, in the case of chickweed, in pasture), and also as urban weeds, a location where they may be joined by hairy bittercress. Very occasionally white deadnettle may also flower on verges.

Other flowers you may notice are garden plants which can escape into semi-wild situations. One is periwinkle, which produces lots of foliage (sometimes carpeting roadside banks or even woods) and a few purple flowers. In churchyards, and sometimes in wilder spots, you occasionally find aconites - yellow flowers with a ruff of green leaves. On village verges you can still see some winter heliotrope - a rather invasive plant with large rounded leaves and stalks of strange pink flowers. Some cyclamens also escape from gardens onto village verges, and in mild years summer snowflake (which looks a bit like an oversized snowdrop) may appear at the end of the month.

Green shoots

In fields, on verges and on woodland floor there is plenty of evidence of other flowers to come later in the spring, with many green shoots in evidence. You need some botanical skills to identify them, but even the casual observer can see an increase in activity during February. (For photos of many of the shoots mentioned below, click here.)

The most obvious and easiest to identify is cow parsley, whose leaves can be seen everywhere. At this time of year the plant really does look like parsley, though it is not: its name means "fool's parsley". This plant has in fact been growing since October, with some further new shoots appearing in January, but does not flower until May.

Tiny shoots of cleavers (also known as goosegrass) and the curving waxy leaves of cuckoo pint (aka lords and ladies) are also very common. Some of the latter may appear during January, but more then follow in early February. From early in the month the leaves - initially very tiny - of bluebells also start to be seen everywhere in the woods where they will bloom, and though some have been around all winter, there is definitely an increase in the saw-toothed leaves of dandelions. Some catsear and hawkbit leaves are also evident. Young stinging nettles shoots, some of which have been around since November, are also joined by new ones (though some of these may be the shoots of white deadnettles, which are also growing at this time).

Back in woodland, you can see the shoots of dog's mercury, an inconspicuous plant that nevertheless brings swathes of green to the floors of some woodland (it is also found near hedgerows on lane verges). In places the silver-streaked leaves of the "argentatum" variety of yellow archangel can be seen, as well as new shoots of red campion, and you may come across the foliage of woodruff or wood sorrel. Towards the end of the month you find the leaves of ramsons (aka wild garlic), which have a strong garlic smell.

In addition, the shovel-shaped leaves of lesser celandine are everywhere by now, both on verges and in woodland. Otherwise on verges you can see the large rough foliage of alkanet (which is similar to that of white comfrey, which is also occasionally found), along with the leaves of primrose, garlic mustard, wood avens (aka herb bennet), herb robert, nipplewort, forget-me-not, stitchwort, common mallow, greater celandine (not to be confused with lesser celandine, to which it is unrelated), ground elder, foxglove and dock.

In grassland there are the leaves of various perennial plants that have been there all winter, including cranesbill, clover, daisy, cinquefoil, ribwort plantain, spear thistle, ragwort, yarrow, creeping and meadow buttercup, and (on downland) salad burnet.

In boggy areas later in the month you get the distinctive heart-shaped leaves of marsh marigold starting to appear, and in milder years the foliage of the very poisonous hemlock water dropwort can be seen on the edge of rivers. At the end of the month you may see the new shoots of yellow flag iris in ponds or marshes. Out of cracks in walls ivy-leaved toadflax puts out new shoots and by railway tracks in larger railway stations (and sometimes at the head of pebble beaches) you may see some Oxford ragwort plants.

By the sea the foliage of alexanders is abundant (in 2016 some even flowered) and you can see the leafy stumps of tree mallow. The leaves of sea beet, wild cabbage, rock sea-lavender, rock samphire, red valerian, silver ragwort, sea purslane, bristly oxtongue, stonecrop, sea mayweed, hottentot fig, aster (the garden escapee version) and buckshorn plantain can also be seen.

In arable fields, winter crops such as the grass-like new shoots of wheat add a welcome splash of green to the landscape (they remain as short as they were back in October: it is not until March that they start to grow). The cabbage-like leaves you see in some fields are the young shoots of oilseed rape: note their location if you like seeing this crop in flower in the April. On arable fields you can see the frizzy leaves of mayweed and the tiny thistle-like rosettes of prickly sow thistle, and in bare spots generally the leaves of groundsel, chickweed, hairy bittercress, shepherd's purse, field speedwell and smooth sow thistle. All except mayweed and prickly sow thistle can also found as found as urban weeds.

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