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March trees and shrubs

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

Hedgerows and trees are still mainly brown and bare in March, but there are some early signs of the big transformation that will take place in April, with the first new leaves appearing.

The month often begins with cherry plum in flower, both the ornamental pink park or city street version and the wild white one in the countryside, though timings vary dramatically from year to year, depending on how cold it is. It can come out as early as mid February or not till mid March (see February trees and shrubs for a record of recent years). Once out it usually lasts about three weeks, though there have been years when a cold snap hit just as flowering was starting and it then went into suspended animation for several weeks. Extremes include 2010, when it did not come out till late March, and 2016 when a warm December and January persuaded many to flower in early February, going over at its end, though some flowered in March as usual and lasted into the first week of April.

After the cherry plum blossom fades it is replaced by leaves (some younger bushes leaf without flowering), so that in a normal year the wild cherry plum is one of the first shrubs in the countryside to put out new greenery. There is then normally a gap in the blossom sequence until the almost identical looking blackthorn blossom starts in early April, but it is not untypical for some of these - usually younger or smaller bushes - to flower in the second half of March.

Some younger blackthorns (or some parts of them) that are not yet mature enough to flower may also go straight to leaf at this time, though generally foliage only appears as the blossom falls in mid April. Blackthorn can be told apart from cherry plum by the thorns sticking out horizontally from its branches, which soften and become covered in blossom when it flowers. Cherry plum also has folded-back sepals on its flowers, while blackthorn does not.

The gap between cherry plum and blackthorn is often filled by forsythia, a garden shrub that is also found in semi-wild situations. It is suddenly awash with yellow flowers from mid month, but again times vary. It was in flower from the start of the month in 2008 and 2011 but not till the end in 2015. In 2013 it started to come out in the first week and then was kept in suspended animation by the freezing cold until the second week of April, while in 2018 there was a sharp cold snap mid month just as it was starting to flower which kept some (but not most) tentative till late in the month. In 2016 some forsythia started to flower as early as late December in response to a very mild winter up to that point, but most did not flower until mid March and were then very tentative until early April. As with blackthorn, forsythia flowers give way to foliage after about three weeks or so.

Another garden shrub you can sometimes find in the wild is flowering currant, whose pendulous pink flowers appear in the second half. Purely a garden plant, but still a key harbinger of spring, magnolia put out its huge flowers in mid March in 2019 and in the last week of March in 2012 and 2017 (and to a lesser extent 2014), but early April is the more normal time for this. (In 2016 some magnolia started to flower in late December and then went into suspended animation when January proved cold: some then flowered quite early in March while others waited till April).

In the same category is kerria japonica pleniflora, a garden plant with button-like yellow flowers sometimes found in semi-wild situations, which properly flowers in April, but sometimes seems to be trying to do so during March. Darwin's barberry is another garden shrub that gets noticed in the second half of March for its bright orange flowers, and rosemary may also put out blue flowers, though often it waits till April. Some winter jasmine flowers may linger on early in the month, while viburnum can be fading away if it has flowered a lot earlier in the winter, or still be adding new flowers in March if it has not. Very occasionally you may also see a winter flowering cherry still in bloom in a garden or street (causing confusion with the ornamental version of cherry plum), but most of it is long over.

On heathland and scrubland, gorse, whose cheerful yellow flowers have slowly been building up all winter, now makes quite a concentrated display. The candle-like flower buds of cherry laurel also continue to lengthen, and by the end of the month they are 6-7 centimetres tall. (In 2014, 2017 and 2019 they were starting to flower at the month's end: in 2016 some had been in flower since early January and continued to do so patchily until mid to late April). The flower spikes distinguish cherry laurel from the otherwise very similar-looking rhododendron, which has more conventional, bulb-shaped flower buds in March and sometimes some new foliage.

In 2012, 2014, 2017 and 2019 wild cherry also started to leaf and flower in places at the very end of March, though April is the normal time for this.

Shrubs adding foliage

Though April is the main month when shrubs and trees spring into leaf, the process makes a start in March, and indeed on some plants has got going earlier in the winter. The appearance of leaves on cherry plum once the blossom fades, as well as the occasional early blackthorn foliage, is mentioned above. Other plants in leaf in March include privet and buddleia. Both retain some of its foliage in winter and now add more: on garden privet (the kind found in garden hedges) this process is usually under way when the month starts, while on wild privet (narrower leaves) it starts as the month progress. Buddleia has had small new leaves since shedding its previous year's foliage in October: these grow during March to full size. On heaths bilberry also adds new leaves to its existing ones later in March, as does the garden escapee firethorn (aka pyracantha).

Honeysuckle has clusters of new foliage too, having put out shoots as early as December: it can be quite a surprise to see these in the middle of otherwise bare woods. The leaf clusters tend to remain quite small in March, though. Unless it is very cold, the tentative small leaves that appeared on elder in January increase in size as March goes on.

Other shrubs seem to be testing the air in March. Wild rose can still have the occasional hip on it early in the month, and as the month progresses you can see budburst (the green of leaf showing through the bud) and even tiny new leaves towards the end of the month. As early as mid month bramble also starts to put out new foliage from the buds on its stems that appeared in January. Snowberry - usually a park or garden shrub but sometimes found in the wild - also may produce leaves towards the month's end.

From mid month some smaller or younger hawthorn bushes also put out new leaves. In 2007 and 2014 all hawthorns leafed at this time, while in 2011, 2017 and 2019 this happened in the fourth week. It is not usually until April that hawthorns leaf en masse, however.

Other shrubs that may start to produce foliage in March include lilac, wayfaring tree (with the flowers coming out at the same time), traveller's joy (even as a very few of them still have some dribs and drabs of old man's beard, last year's seed), dogwood, tamarisk (by the sea) and clematis montana (a pink flowered clematis that lives semi-wild on railway line fences and the like).

The first tree to come into leaf

The first tree to come into leaf is – surprisingly – weeping willow, which can start to put out green shoots and catkins as early as the first week of March. In warmer years it shines yellowish-green in the landscape by the second or third week, but in other years this can be delayed till later in the month, or even (exceptionally, in 2018) until early April. Squirrels and birds greedily eat the new catkins. Towards the end of the month the huge buds on horse chestnut open to disgorge weirdly shaped tongues of vegetation that eventually morph into leaflets that hang limp and green. It is rare for this process to be much advanced by the end of March, however.

By this time hazel has put also put out small leaves, though they grow only very slowly. These look almost identical to new leaves on hornbeam (the two trees are related) which also sometimes produces leaves with inconspicuous female flowers late in the month: however its leafing is usually preceded by a mass of male catkins, which appear from mid month onwards.

You can otherwise distinguish hazel leaves from hornbeam by the remaining dessicated catkins hanging on its branches (which can last until mid March or even beyond, but which generally fall in the first week or so of the month, if they have not already done so in late February). Alder catkins also usually fall early in the month though some can remain on the trees till later in the month: they still retain last year's dessicated seed cones. Other seeds you may still see include a few ash keys, empty seed cases on beech and the large spherical seed balls on London plane. Beech and oak trees can still retain some dead leaves from last year: this is usually on saplings or lower branches, but the effect is most clearly seen on trimmed beech hedges.

Poplars - including hybrid black and lombardy poplars - have had large male catkins encased in erect brown buds all winter: some time in the second half of March (from the second week in 2017, mid month in 2019, right at the end of the month in 2015 and 2016 and mostly in early April in 2018) they open and a thick erect catkin emerges (maroon, though they can initially look brown), which then droops, hanging down like a huge tassel. You are more likely to notice the mess as the bud cases fall to the ground (possibly aided by wood pigeons trying to eat the new catkins) or when the catkins fall themselves, looking like enormous red caterpillars. In the second half of March you also get fuzzy red flowers on red maple, an imported species mainly seen in streets and parks: English elm has similar flowers at the same time but this once common species is rarely seen these days.

March is the month for pussy willow catkins (more correctly, the catkins of the goat willow or sallow and the grey willow - or a hybrid between the two), which appear en masse mid month, though you may see a few a bit earlier. (In 2010 they did not come out till the very end of March in 2010, and not till the second week of April in 2013. In 2018 they were starting in late February when there was an intense cold snap, followed by another mid month: some catkins appeared mid month that year, but on many trees they did not come out till the end of the month.) There are in fact two types of catkins, with male trees having the characteristic fuzzy white or yellow catkins - yellow when fully in flower - and females having green ones: both can start by looking grey. Osier has male catkins similar to pussy willow ones, though more densely packed on the branches.

Crack willows, white willows and hybrids of the two, which are found both as full-sized trees and riverside shrubs, don’t put out leaves and catkins until the very end of the month at the earliest. It is usually crack willows that are the first to do this, and on both female and male trees catkin buds also appear either simultaneously or shortly afterwards.

By the end of March some sycamore saplings are coming into leaf, though larger trees wait till mid April, their green buds getting larger in anticipation. The smaller trees are probably primed to leaf earlier to make the most of the sunlight reaching the woodland floor before the leaf canopy opens.

Early in the month you can see little flowers on male yew trees which at some point in the first half (or sometimes in late February) give off clouds of yellow pollen if touched (they are primed to do this all the same time, so there is only a brief window when they do this). In the second half larch - the only conifer to lose its leaves in winter – puts out soft tassels of new leaves, a very few tiny pink cone-shaped flowers (the female flowers) and little yellow buds (the male flowers).

The last week of hot March of 2012, as well as of rather less hot 2017, also saw the strange male flowers of ash appear - they look a bit like frizzy lettuce. They were joined in both of those years, as well as in 2014 and 2019, by the yellowy-green flowers of Norway maple, which look from distance like new leaves. The end of March 2017 also saw budburst on apple and in 2012, 2017 and in 2019 the occasional birch started to catkin at the end of the month. In 2014 and 2019 new leaves and spherical flowers were appearing on London planes by the month's end. In 2019 there was budburst on oak at the very end of the month.

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