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March flowers

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Picture: wood anemones. Click here for more March flower photos

March is the start of spring, but it is not quite yet the flower-filled high spring of April and May. Instead, this is a sort of pre-spring, a time of awakening nature. It starts with only tentative signs of new growth but gathers pace as it goes along. By the end of the month plenty of early flowers are out, cheering up parks, path verges and some woodland floors. Fields and trees still generally look drab and tired, however.

(Now and then there is a cold March where little or none of this happens, however: see Cold years at the bottom of this page.)

Daffodils, celandines, primroses, dandelions and daisies

Snowdrops and crocuses fade in the first half of March, but one doesn’t notice because there are plenty of other distractions. In particular, March is daffodil month: the few that came out in February are gradually joined by others, with numbers reaching their maximum towards the end of the month before mostly fading in the first half of April.

The same goes for celandines (properly lesser celandines) which appear on road and path verges and on woodland floors. Once again, one gets a few in the first week of the month and then they gradually gather force, peaking at the end of March. You have to be out in the middle of the day to see them at their best, however: they are sensitive to cold, and in the early morning or late in the afternoon - or on cold, grey days - they are tightly closed yellow buds, making them almost invisible.

Another yellow favourite is the primrose, which crops up on wayside verges and in woodland right from the start of the month and can cover some road or path verges by its end. Dandelions appear on verges or in grassy places – only a few isolated ones in the first half of the month (often very short-stemmed), but then becoming more widespread either from mid month or towards its end. In cold years there may be almost none even late in March though. Check you are not looking at coltsfoot, which has a superficially similar flower, but no leaves: not that common, it generally grows in damp, bare places

Daisies also dot mown grass even quite early in the month and increase in number as the weather warms: an old country saying is that spring has arrived when you can cover nine with one foot, though this is not usually till late in the month, or even early April.

Woodland specialists

In the woods the chief attraction in March is the wood anemone – white or blushed with pink, star-shaped when open by day, demure hanging bells in the early morning or late afternoon or if the weather is especially cold. They start mid month and can be at their best at the month's end, forming intense carpets in some woods, though in colder years only 20-40 percent of them may be in flower by this time. Wood anemones were traditionally known as "windflowers" because they flowered when the first spring breezes blew. They are a sign of ancient woodland because patches of them only spread one metre in 50 years.

Another plant that carpets woodland floors is dog's mercury, providing a welcome flush of green as it grows to full size during the month. Its flowers, appearing as soon as it is fully grown, are inconspicuous. As the month goes on, the sharp-eyed might also spot mats of the diminutive moschatel, whose square greeny-yellow flowers earn it the nickname of 'town hall clock'. In addition in warmer years you can see golden saxifrage starting to form mats with its tiny yellowy-green flowers, as well as possibly some wood sorrel.

Other woodland flowers are still to come, but you can see evidence of them. The spiky leaves of bluebells can be seen all month but the flowers are still some weeks away. The same goes for wild garlic (ramsons) whose waxy leaves appear in late February and are fully grown (and smelling very garlicky) by the end of March. You may also see the distinctive leaves of woodruff and the silver-striped basal leaves of the argentatum variety of yellow archangel (though not of the ordinary variety which has no basal leaves and seems to grow in a spike straight out of the ground in April): also the leaves of red campion and pignut. Later in the month ivy-leaved speedwell can form mats alongside woodland paths (also on normal path verges) and put out buds of its tiny pale violet flowers.

Path and field verges

As well as the celandines, primroses, daffodils and dandelions mentioned above, flowers you can see on path and field verges in March include violets - usually the darker-coloured sweet violet on verges, with the paler dog violet from mid month on downland and in woods. Red deadnettle is also present on verges right from the start of March, forming large patches as the month progresses.

There may also be some white deadnettle (it is quite variable in its timings, and some years there is hardly any till April) and green alkanet (whose flowers are blue: its name refers to the fact that the plant grows all year, ie is "evergreen"). Towards the end of the month, if the weather is warm, barren strawberry, ground ivy and white comfrey may start to appear, along with some cuckoo flowers. Dog's mercury (see Woodland above) can grow on path and lane verges too.

In the second half of the month there is a noticeable increase in other vegetation, the leaves of flowers to come later in the spring. Already during the winter the star-shaped shoots of cleavers (aka goosegrass), the triangular waxy green leaves of cuckoo pint, and the fern-like vegetation of cow parsley have made their appearance, and by the end of the month the cow parsley is starting to increase in size (in 2020, after a mild winter, a very few were even flowering by mid March). Stinging nettles also continue to grow (and are joined by more new shoots), though are not yet more than a few inches high.

Look even closer on verges and in grassy fields and you can see many other plants which have been patiently waiting out the winter months but which are not flowering yet, including creeping buttercup, meadow buttercup, ribwort plantain, cranesbills, clover, garlic mustard, mallow, herb bennet (aka wood avens), herb robert, foxglove, greater celandine, cinquefoil, ragwort, spear thistle, catsear, hawkbit and yarrow.

Ground elder shoots can also be seen on verges, and further dock leaves join any that grew earlier in the winter. There are also new shoots of bush vetch, silverweed, hogweed, and more rarely giant hogweed, which looks a bit like rhubarb. Towards the end of the month greater plantain leaves may appear on muddy paths or field margins. Note also the asparagus-like stalks of horsetail, which you may just see at the end of March and whose heads produce pollen. They go on to open most unexpectedly in April into the familiar green 'fly whisk' plants. For photos of many of these plants click here.

Wasteground and arable

Back with flowers, there are a number of smaller species that crop up commonly as urban weeds in March, as well as being found in their more natural habitat of arable field margins and other disturbed ground, or on bare verges. These include shepherd's purse, the unloved groundsel and field speedwell. Towards the end of the month in mown grass you might also see slender speedwell, a mauve-flowered plant that is a (very pleasant) foreign invader.

Chickweed is both an urban weed and a plant of grasslands and pasture fields, as well as very occasionally cropping up on arable field edges, while red deadnettle can form attractive patches on arable fields and bare ground in all sorts of places. Hairy bittercress is found as an urban weed and on other bare ground (including occasionally arable field edges) throughout the month. In some warm years you may also come across the leafier wavy bittercress right at the end of the month, and at the same time you might see the very inconspicuous thale cress.

Note also the plants of smooth sow thistle and nipplewort in urban habitats, and the rosettes of prickly sow thistle on bare fields: smooth sow thistle may occasionally even flower in milder years. Late in the month you may find Danish scurvygrass - a white flowered plant - growing along the edges of salted main roads, while on railway tracks in urban areas there may be some Oxford ragwort flowering (thinking it is on the clinker of its native Mount Etna).

The frizzy leaves of mayweed are visible on arable fields as they have been all winter. The cabbage-like crop growing in arable fields is oilseed rape - in 2014 (and to a lesser extent in 2017 and 2020) it was even in flower at the month's end, but this is usually delayed until April. Very occasionally charlock or wild radish can turn up as an arable weed in March. Wheat at this time of year appears like thick-bladed grass: planted back in the autumn and much the same height (about 10cm) over the winter, it can start to grow taller towards the end of March.

By water

In boggy areas you can see marsh marigold by the second half, and by rivers you may see the weird pink spikes of butterbur. In the same habitat as well as in damp ditches the (very poisonous) foliage of hemlock water dropwort is evident, while in ponds the straight green leaves of yellow flag iris start to grow. You also see new green shoots growing out of the brown wastes of last year's reeds and bulrushes. The double circle basal leaves of Himalayan balsam can carpet the ground in places, while the foliage of watercress (or maybe fool's watercress) can be seen in shallow chalk rivers.

By the sea, wallflower (an orange-flowered garden escapee) may be blooming on chalk cliff faces (it also sometimes crops up on chalk railway cuttings), and by the end of the month alexanders – a sort of yellow-green cow parsley - flowers on path verges, mostly near the sea but sometimes also inland.

On shingle beaches and other bare spots near the sea the plants (though not the flowers) of sea beet, silver ragwort, red valerian, tree mallow, wild cabbage, stonecrop, sea mayweed, hottentot fig and aster (the garden escapee version) can be seen, and maybe even buckshorn plantain, along with rock sea-lavender and rock samphire on chalk cliffs and sea purslane in marsh areas. On bare ground and verges near the sea you may also see the leaf rosettes of bristly oxtongue, which could be mistaken for the rather similar ones of teasel.

Gardens

Several flowers that are mainly found in gardens but just about qualify as wild flowers can be seen in March – for example, purple periwinkle, which can colonise roadside verges or even areas in woods, and lungwort, which also escapes onto verges. As early as the second week you can see the bobble-headed grape hyacinth, a relative of the bluebell, while towards the end of the month forget-me-nots start to appear, mainly in gardens, but also sometimes in the wild. (There are some wild forget-me-not species later in the spring, but the ones you see in March are almost always garden escapees, a cultivated version of wood forget-me-not.)

In addition, latter in the month you may see three-cornered leek (or three-cornered garlic: both names are used), looking a bit like white bluebells, and - very occasionally - another exotic plant from the garlic family - few-flowered garlic. A common garden plant that looks like a large snowdrop with delicate green triangles at the end of its white petals is summer snowflake. Towards the end of the month creeping comfrey may start to flower on verges near gardens. Ivy-leaved toadflax leaves trail down walls, but it usually does not flower till April, the same being true of yellow corydalis.

March is also when grass starts to grow again, meaning gardeners and park keepers get their mowers out, something that often happens around the middle of the month.

Cold years

The most notorious exception to everything described above was 2013, when after a reasonable first week, bitterly cold easterly winds set in for the rest of the month (see March weather) putting spring competely on hold. With the exception of a few daffodils and a few primroses, there was no change at all to plant life during the month, including no increase in greenery on path verges, and birdsong died away completely. By the end of March (and indeed into the first week in April) the countryside still looked the same as it had in late February, an effect heightened by the fact that both crocuses and snowdrops lasted all month in many places.

2006 was a similarly bleak March, with cold weather lasting till the 23rd and again only a few tentative daffodils and primroses. In the last week flowers started to appear, however. The same was true in 2010, even though temperatures rose into the mid teens by mid month: in this case, a very cold winter seems to have delayed spring growth.

It seems to be sustained low temperatures rather than cold snaps that delay flowers, however. In 2018 despite a week of ferocious east winds at the start of the month and a further three day cold snap mid month, March flowers proceeded to appear as normal, albeit without some of the species described above as appearing in warmer years.

More March pages:


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