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December flowers

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The idea of wildflowers in December might seem completely ridiculous, but surprisingly you do see them occasionally. Early in the month is the best time, but even after hard frosts isolated examples can still pop up.

Flowers that can be seen include white deadnettles on verges (also red deadnettles in milder winters) and daisies scattered across mown or grazed grass. Chickweed, groundsel, shepherd's purse and annual mercury may appear as urban weeds, the last three also occasionally on arable fields, where you may additionally see field speedwell. Chickweed sometimes crops up in pasture fields and in the same place you may see dandelions in milder Decembers, though possibly with their flowers may be partially closed.

On sheltered garden walls Mexican fleabane (a kind of daisy bush) may still hang on. Later in the month on verges in country villages you may see the strange winter heliotrope, whose pink flowers emerge out of a mass of large round leaves.

Other flowers I have seen occasionally in December, usually early in the month, include scentless mayweed and wild radish on arable fields, and on verges herb robert, hogweed, yarrow, smooth sow thistle, common ragwort, hawkweed oxtongue and bristly oxtongue, the latter usually on the coast. In the very mild December of 2015 (the warmest on record) there was also some daffodil, primrose, red deadnettle, red campion and periwinkle. Herb robert was seen quite frequently in flower and at the end of the month some snowdrops and crocuses appeared.

Next year's flowers

While actual flowers may be scarce, signs of flowers to come are everywhere if you have a practised eye. Even in the depths of winter plants are grabbing territory for the spring ahead and putting forth green shoots.

On verges you can see the new leaves of cow parsley (which really do look like parsley at this time of year), as well as the new shoots of garlic mustard and cleavers (aka goosegrass). All of these have been in place since October and are definitely new growth from seed, grabbing their territory for next year's flowering season, though in December you can see new shoots of all three poking up through the leaf litter.

Likewise tiny dandelion, catsear/hawkbit, herb bennet (aka wood avens) and stinging nettle shoots push through the leaf litter, joining more established shoots of the same plants that are already in place on verges and (in the case of dandelions, catsears and hawkbits) on grassland. Some of the new nettle shoots may be white deadnettles - if not flowering they look almost identical to stinging nettles. (Red deadnettle is also not impossible: see the opening section above). On path verges you can also see some new shoots of nipplewort, which have a distinctively-shaped end to their leaves.

Towards the end of the month (as early as mid month in milder winters) all of these may be joined on bare verges by the tiny heart-shaped leaves of lesser celandine, an exciting reminder of the spring to come as they will increase in frequency to become almost ubiquitous in February and then flower in March.

There is the occasional herb robert shoot in shady locations but most of these seem to die away in December (though in very mild December 2015 many survived and even flowered, while in 2018 they survived without flowering). The hogweed shoots that appeared optimistically in the autumn are also generally killed off by the frost (though very occasionally in milder winters they survive to flower - see the opening section above), and this is also true of remaining dock leaves, though in December 2018 new ones appeared in many places.

Other flower plants one sees are perennials, which flowered this year and will last throughout the winter to flower in the next. In grassland these include buttercups - very common - as well as cranesbills, cinquefoil, ribwort plantain, yarrow, clover and daisies. On shady verges you can see the silver-streaked "argentatum" variety of yellow archangel, while woodruff can be found in woodland.

Also on verges you can see green alkanet leaves (mainly new ones at this time of year), as well as those of forget-me-nots (the garden variety, which is a kind of wood forget-me-not, and usually found near habitation) and common mallow: all of these are perennial. Meanwhile foxglove (often in areas cleared of trees or scrub) and ragwort are biennial - that is, they grew from seed this year and will flower next year, then die - and the same is true of spear thistle whose rosettes can be seen. Very occasionally you may also see greater celandine (not to be confused with lesser celandine, to which it is unrelated), while growing out of walls you can still see ivy-leaved toadflax leaves.

On wasteground and in odd urban corners there can be an upsurge in chickweed, which looks as if it is about to flower but mostly does not (though sometimes it does: see opening section above). Groundsel and smooth sow thistle shoots may crop up in the same habitats. Some arable fields are covered with the green shoots of winter wheat, looking like blades of grass: they stay this way till March, when they start to grow taller. If you see a field covered in cabbage-like plants this is oilseed rape: make a note of the location and come back in April to see a sea of yellow flowers.

By the sea you can see the new foliage of alexanders and the plants of perennial species such as silver ragwort, rock sea-lavender, rock samphire, sea beet, red valerian, tree mallow, stonecrop, hottentot fig, aster (the garden escapee version) and buckshorn plantain: also the warty rosettes of bristly oxtongue (which is annual or biennial), and, around Dover and Folkestone, wild cabbage plants.

Towards the very end of the month you may see the new shoots of daffodils in parks and gardens and on suburban verges. In mild December 2015 shoots also appeared that normally would only be seen in January or later, including dog's mercury, cuckoo pint and bluebell, while in late December 2016 I saw hemlock water dropwort shoots in rivers and ditches.

More December pages:

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