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February trees and shrubs

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Put your cursor over any photo to see its caption, or click here to see more February tree and shrub photos.

The tree flowering sequence gets going February, if it has not already started in late January. The month may begin with hazel catkins already out on the trees - as in 2012, 2014, 2015, 2018, 2019 and 2020 - or this may be delayed until early February (eg in 2009, 2011 and 2013). In 2010, 2016 and 2017 they did not appear widely until mid February, while in 2020 despite some appearing in mid January, many were not evident till mid February. Once out, these bushy "lambs tails" bring a welcome splash of yellow to the countryside, lasting four to five weeks. If you look closely you can also see the tiny red female flowers in the centre of the leaf buds - these will later become the hazelnuts.

Next in the sequence are alder catkins - easily recognisable because they are the only catkins to appear on trees bearing cones. The buds of the catkins have been on the tree all winter, 2-3cm long and either green or pinkish in colour. They now extend into long tassels of yellow flecked with brown. The timing of this varies quite a bit from tree to tree and you may see it in places from mid month. But it is often not till the last week that it happens en masse - or not until the first week of March in cold 2010, 2013 and 2018.

Sometimes cherry plum blossom also appears in February. There is a cultivated pink-flowered version (actually often white-flowered if you look closely, but with red-brown foliage that makes its flowers appear pink) which is seen in parks and suburban streets, and a wild white-flowered shrub. In 2020 some was out in the first week and cherry plums flowered quite widely in the second week. In 2004 and 2008 it flowered from mid month and in 2014 and 2019 in the fourth week. In 2005 it started in mid February but was brought to a halt by cold north winds in the third week and did not resume till mid March. In 2012 and 2017 it appeared at the start of March, in 2015 at the end of the first week of March and in 2006, 2009, 2011 in mid March. In 2018 some was starting at the end of February when a week of Siberian cold and snow hit and the blossom then did not appear till mid March. In 2010 there was none till late March, and in 2013 flowering started in early March but was then halted by bitterly cold east winds until the first week of April.

2016 was a very exceptional year in that cherry plum blossom started from mid January due to a very mild December and was in full swing at the start of February. Flowering was very staggered that year and lasted in places into early March. In general, however, it lasts around three weeks, though it can seem as if the plant is shedding some its flowers almost as soon as they appear. It is not necessarily the wind that is to blame for this: wood pigeons and other birds also try to eat the blossom (or buds), causing them to fall to the ground.

On other trees buds become more prominent, turning their crisp winter outlines somewhat fuzzier. This shows that they are ready to put out new leaves or flowers, but this does not happen yet. There can be budburst (the underlying colour of the flower or foliage showing through the bud) on hornbeam later in the month (in 2014 this happened quite widely from early in February) and sycamore may have green oval buds. In addition weeping willow may start to put forward both leaves and catkins at the very end of the month, adding a faint greenish tinge to their fronds when seen from a distance. At the same time you may see the start of the white (later yellow) blobs that are the male catkins of goat willow or sallow (commonly referred to as "pussy willows"). Red maple (a street tree) also sometimes starts to put out its frizzy red flowers

On some trees last autumn's seeds are still in evidence. Cones remaining on alder are mentioned above. In addition ash trees may still have some keys (seed bunches), though many have fallen to the ground in January: during February many of the rest fall, but some may remain into March. The dark nobbly growths that can be seen hanging down on some ashes when the seeds fall off are cauliflower galls, made by an insect. One can also see a few winged seeds hanging from the twigs of lime. Some of last autumn's (open) nut cases are still on beech trees and London plane retains its spherical seed cases. A few seeds may survive on sycamore or field maple.

Notice too the catkins buds (which have been there all winter) waiting to open on birch: it may also still have desiccated seed cylinders left over from last year, though most have fallen by now. On a few oak or beech trees (saplings or lower branches), as well beech hedges in gardens or parks, there can still be some dead foliage left over from last autumn.

Some shrubs add foliage

While trees are still bare, some shrubs are already adding foliage. Garden privet - the kind that is often used in hedges - has had some small leaves among its full-sized ones all winter, but mid month starts to put forth new ones, just tiny green buds for the moment. The same does not yet happen on wild privet, however. Elder can also put out tiny new leaf clusters, which grow very slowly as the month advances. (This is very variable from year to year and plant to plant, however: in some years hardly any are seen.)

Honeysuckle may have quite a lot of leaves if in suburban areas, or just small clusters of new leaves if in woodland: but in either case there is usually further foliage growth in February. Buddleia has small new leaves, but they have been there since the end of leaf fall and do not usually grow noticeably this month (the last week of February 2020 being an exception).

Brambles have the beginning of new leaf shoots sticking at an angle out of their spiny stems, but they do not open yet. On some brambles, particularly ones in exposed positions, the foliage from the previous year is almost entirely gone, with just a few maroon leaves left: those in woodland or on sheltered verges still keep a fair number of green leaves, however.

In milder years a few hawthorns may also be putting out some tentative new foliage at the end of the month, though this tends to be just a few isolated examples and it is only younger plants that do this (perhaps genetically programmed to benefit from a little photosynthesis before the tree canopy comes into leaf and blocks their light). Occasionally you see budburst on blackthorn (the white of the blossom to come showing through the bud) or even actual flowering. Blackthorn flowers look almost identical to cherry plum ones: the way to tell them apart is that blackthorn has sharp "thorns" (actually dormant side shoots) sticking out at right angles from its twigs, and also that the sepals (tiny green leaves underpinning the flower) are folded back on cherry plum but not on blackthorn. Roses may also produce some new leaf shoots, but these tend to be garden escapees rather then the wild dog rose or burnet rose. Wayfaring tree (a shrub, often found on downland) can produce flower buds with a leaf bud either side later in the month.

Berries are mostly gone now. If ivy berries have not already disappeared, they are quickly eaten once they ripen to black, though some may linger into March. Blackbirds, thrushes and wood pigeons are particularly fond of them, and the latter flying up in alarm as you pass an ivy bush is the best indicator of when the berries are ripe. Dog rose bushes may also still have some hips on them and wild privet some black berries. Early in the month a few white snowberries may be visible and you can occasionally still see orange berries on stinking iris, a long-leaved plant usually seen in gardens but sometimes in the wild. You can see very occasional holly berries. Though most of them were consumed by birds in December a few cotoneaster or firethorn (aka pyracantha) berries may survive - presumably in locations in accessible to their avian consumers.

In at least two years - 2008 and 2011 - forsythia has burst into flower in mid February. This wonderful shrub, mainly found in gardens but also naturalised in some places, is mentioned here because its riot of yellow flowers really cheers up the early spring gloom. Its appearance in 2008 could be attributed to mild weather, but its flowering in 2011 is more of a mystery: late February was too cold that year for cherry blossom, but not for forsythia. In 2020, a mild winter, it was partly in flower in the last week of the month and in 2014 just starting to appear in the last few days, while 2017 and 2019 saw budburst (the yellow of the flowers showing through the bud casing) at this time. In 2016 a very few started to flower at the beginning of January due to December having been very mild, but they soon thought better of it and did not resume until March.

Forsythia is not to be confused with the much less luxuriant winter jasmine, which has yellow flowers on bare stalks and flowers in gardens all winter: many have gone over by now but some can last into February or even March. Likewise, don't confuse cherry plum blossom with winter flowering cherry, again sometimes seen in gardens, which has sparse pink blossom: it is generally fading at this time of year, and so will most likely be seen early in February, though some does survive into March.

Another garden shrub worth mentioning at this time of year is viburnum, which keeps some white flowers all winter. Gardens are also where you will see rosemary which can sometimes produce blue flowers in February, though more normally this is delayed till as late as April.

Other tree and shrub activity in February includes inconspicuous flowers on male yew trees (a tiny golden ball, which in March, or sometimes at the very end of February, will produce clouds of pollen when touched). You may also see what look like clusters of unfolding needles on yew, but these are in fact a gall parasitising the plant. Scattered gorse flowers continue to be seen. Hedgerows on chalk soils may still be draped with some wisps of old man's beard (the seeds of traveller's joy) early in the month, though it is getting scarce and it is mostly all gone by mid month: in a few places it may last into March, however.

Note also the slow lengthening of the candle-like flower buds on cherry laurel. It is these that distinguish cherry laurel from the otherwise similar looking rhododendron, which has more conventional oval flower buds in the centre of its leaves. (In 2016 cherry laurel flower spikes were full grown and sometimes even flowering in early January, due to a very mild December, and this continued in places throughout February.)

More February pages:

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