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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 and daisies scattered across mown or grazed grass. Chickweed, hairy bittercress, groundsel and shepherd's purse may appear as urban weeds, the latter two also occasionally on arable fields, and field speedwell sometimes crops up as an arable weed too. 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 also 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 herb robert, yarrow, smooth sow thistle, common ragwort and (on railway tracks) Oxford ragwort, as well as bristly oxtongue on the coast. In the very mild December of 2015 (the warmest on record) there was also some daffodil, primrose, red deadnettle, red campion, hogweed, periwinkle and hawkweed oxtongue. 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. Towards the end of the month they may be joined on verges by the tiny leaves of lesser celandine. Some of the new nettle shoots may be white deadnettles - if not flowering they look almost identical to stinging nettles. You also still last year's stinging nettles dying back - looking very thin and ragged by now.

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). The hogweed shoots that appeared optimistically in the autumn are also killed off by the frost,

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 and mallow leaves, 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): all of these are perennial. Foxglove and ragwort, meanwhile, 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). 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): the same is true of the occasional hairy bittercress plant. Groundsel and smooth sow thistle shoots may also 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.

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: a happy reminder of the spring flowers to come. In mild December 2015 shoots also appeared that normally would only appear 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.

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