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January flowers

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Put your cursor over any photo to see its caption, or click here to see more January flower and shoots photos.

Though they are very tentative, the keen-eyed can see signs of spring in January as the plants of wildflowers start to grow and establish their territories. Perhaps the most obvious are the shoots of daffodils, which appear ramrod-straight out of the ground: this can happen at the start of the month (or even from late December) in milder winters, but can be delayed till mid month in colder years.

Look a bit closer at a countryside path verge or woodland floor and you can see a lot of other shoots springing up (for some photos, click here). These include cow parsley (which really looks like parsley at this time of year), garlic mustard and cleavers (also known as goosegrass). Many of these have been there since October, but some further new shoots, especially of cow parsley, can appear in January.

There are also new dandelion, catsear/hawkbit, herb bennet (aka wood avens) and stinging nettle shoots pushing up through the leaf litter, again joining ones that have been there since the autumn. 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 first flowers below.)

Joining these are the tiny new leaves of lesser celandine: they can appear as early as mid December but really pick up momentum in January, when they appear everywhere on verges and in woodland. In the same places note the waxy curved leaves of cuckoo pint, which appear from mid month onwards in milder years, though in others not till February.

Another shoot you may see in woodland in milder years is dog's mercury, though most years they are not seen till late February or March. In addition red campion and wood sorrel leaves may be visible, as well as the tiny new shoots of that quintessential April-May flower, stitchwort. At the very end of the month the grass-like leaves of bluebells appear - very tiny and inconspicuous at this point. (This happened from mid month in 2018 and even earlier in 2016: see the end of this section).

In the second half of January one can also see crocuses pushing up their shoots - mainly in parks and gardens, but the delicate pink native variety does sometimes crop up in the wild. Some were in evidence as early as mid month in 2007, 2008, 2015, 2018 and 2019, but the fourth week is a more normal time to notice them (eg in 2009, 2012, 2013 and 2014). In snowy January 2010 none appeared at all, and the same was true in January 2017.

Other flower leaves one sees belong to perennials, which flowered this year and whose plants 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 also see the "argentatum" variety of yellow archangel, while woodruff can be found in woodland.

Perennials on verges include green alkanet (easy to confuse with the much rarer white comfrey), which continues to add more new leaves to the ones that emerged from October to December. You also see 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). 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 come across greater celandine (not to be confused with lesser celandine, to which it is unrelated), while the distinctively-shaped leaves of nipplewort (an annual) can be found on barer verges.

In the mild Januaries of 2016 and (to a lesser extent) 2018, there was an upsurge in dock leaves late in the month, while herb robert foliage seemed to quite common. In the winter of 2018-19 new dock leaves were common from December onwards and herb robert lasted all winter. But in colder winters these plants are absent till later in the spring.

On wasteground and in odd urban corners there is quite a lot of chickweed, which looks as if it is about to flower but mostly does not. The same is true of smooth sow thistle. Groundsel and field speedwell shoots are also seen in the same habitats, as well as on bare arable fields (and in the case of field speedwell, even in pasture). Growing out of walls you can still see ivy-leaved toadflax leaves, and on rail tracks or at the top of shingle beaches Oxford ragwort plants

In bare arable fields there are mayweed plants, while new shoots of winter wheat bring a welcome green twinge to the landscape (they remain as short as they were back in October: it is not until the spring that they shoot up). If you see a cabbage-like crop, it is almost certainly oilseed rape: make a note of the location and come back in April to see a glorious sea of yellow flowers. The tiny thistle-like rosettes of prickly sow thistle can also be seen on bare ground.

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 also found inland, but more common by the sea) and, around Folkestone and Dover, the plants of wild cabbage. In salt marshes grey sea purslane plants can be seen.

If it snows

Very cold weather may delay the appearance of some new shoots, but snow - at least a few days of it - has surprisingly little impact. Anything that appears out of the ground at this time of year has evolved to deal with it.

Equally, though a very mild winter may persuade some shoots to come out earlier, they usually seem to hedge their bets. An example was January 2016, which followed the warmest December on record. While some daffodils, primroses and snowdrops were already flowering at the end of December that year, the bulk of them were not and most daffodil shoots waited till early January to appear. Likewise though bluebell, cuckoo pint and dog's mercury plants in a few places seemed almost full grown at the end of December 2015, most appeared as normal during January or even towards its end.

In January 2016 hemlock water dropwort foliage was also seen growing in streams, though normally this does not appear till February.

The first flowers

Some plants actually flower in January. One you might see on roadside verges is winter heliotrope - an invasive plant with large circular leaves which nevertheless produces not unattractive pink and white flowers. In gardens and churchyards you can sometimes get vibrant displays of aconites - a yellow flower with a distinctive ruff of leaves. Periwinkle, a spreading plant found in semi-wild situations, may also put out one or two of its purple blooms.

In warmer years there may be a few daisies in lawns (they do not come out in force until March or April, however) and you might see the occasional red deadnettle (usually on an arable verge or similar bare ground). Field speedwell, chickweed, groundsel, shepherd's purse and may also crop up in urban corners or as arable weeds. In 2013 and 2019 white deadnettles flowered in several spots.

But the main January flower is, of course, the snowdrop which hangs its head humbly in the cold. First snowdrops can appear in sheltered locations quite early in the month - I saw my first on 5 January in Thursley, near Haslemere, in 2018; on 9 January in North London in 2018; on 11 January near Goring in 2004, and on 12 January by Watts Chapel near Guildford in 2008; and on 15 January near Chilham in 2005. But they really come out in force about towards the end of January. In the cold winter of 2010 most snowdrops were still just buds by the month's end, however, while by the end of January 2017 most had not even reached that stage. Only a third were in flower by the end of January 2011 and 2013, and surprisingly, despite their early start that year, the same was true in 2019.

Unusual years

At the end of 2015 exceptionally mild weather caused some snowdrops to flower in late December, but most of them remained tentative throughout January 2016. A very few crocuses were also out in late December that year and by mid January about half of them were in flower. Daffodils appeared at the end of December too and were evident in small quantities quite widely throughout January but the majority still remained at leaf stage. In addition there were a few primroses, very occasional dandelions, and some spring snowflake in gardens.

In 2018 one or two primroses were also seen in flower, while crocuses were fully in flower by the month's end. In 2019 I saw one or two dandelions (early in the month), three daffodils, one lesser celandine and two or three herb robert flowers: some crocuses were also in flower by the month's end. Charlock occasionally cropped up in arable fields and by the sea I once saw silver ragwort flowering, twice Oxford ragwort and once red valerian.

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