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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 of all these plants 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 If it snows below). You can also woodruff in woodland, and the "argentatum" variety of yellow archangel on shady verges and woodland edges.

In the second half of January crocuses push 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, 2019 and 2020, but in other years (eg in 2009, 2012, 2013 and 2014) they do not appear until the fourth week. In snowy January 2010 none appeared at all, and the same was true in January 2017. Once the shoots have fully grown, their flowers may open on a mild or sunny day (see The First Flowers below).

Other flower leaves one sees belong to perennials, which flowered this year and whose plants then 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, daisies and (on downland) salad burnet. On verges perennials 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 on verges, 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 (but don't confuse them with those of prickly sow thistle: see arable below). 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. Towards the end of the month you may just see leaves of primroses.

In the mild January of 2016 and (to a lesser extent) 2018, there was an upsurge in dock leaves late in the month, while in the winters of 2018-19 and 2019-20 they were common from December onwards. In all these years some herb robert leaves also lasted all winter. But in colder winters both 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 and chickweed, even in pasture). In mild winters the leaves of hairy bittercress can also appear on wasteground by roadsides: in January 2020 it even flowered tentatively. 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 low 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 rivers or in ditches you may just see hemlock water dropwort leaves (very poisonous!) growing in a very mild January, though February or even March is a more normal time from them to appear. By the sea you can see the luxuriant foliage of alexanders (it was introduced to this country by the Romans as a winter herb) and the plants of perennial species such as silver ragwort, rock sea-lavender, rock samphire, sea beet, red valerian, tree mallow, stonecrop, sea mayweed, 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 (more rarely) the more wrinkly ones of teasel (which last the winter and then die off before the plant flowers). On the coast around Folkestone and Dover note the plants of wild cabbage (another Roman import), and on salt marshes the leaves of sea lavender and the grey foliage of sea purslane.

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.

The first flowers

Some plants actually flower in January. The main one, of course, is the snowdrop which hangs its head humbly in the cold. The first ones can appear in sheltered locations quite early in the month - I saw my first one in 2020 near Beaconsfield on New Year's Day and on 5 January in Thursley near Haslemere in 2019. The second week is a more usual time for a first sighting, however - eg 9 January in North London in 2018 or 12 January by Watts Chapel near Guildford in 2008.

It is not the end of the month that snowdrops start to come out in force, though, and sometimes not even then: in the cold winter of 2010 most were still just buds by that point, while in 2017 most had not even reached that stage. Only a third were in flower by the end of January 2011, 2013 and 2019, while in 2020 they were two thirds out.

Crocuses may also flower in the second half of January - see the section on plant shoots above for more details of this - and on roadside verges (usually in or near a village) you may see winter heliotrope - an invasive plant with large circular leaves which produces not unattractive pink and white flowers. In gardens and churchyards there are 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). In 2013, 2019 and 2020 there were also some white deadnettles. The very occasional dandelion or primrose or daffodil is just about possible in very mild years.

On urban waysides - and sometimes as arable weeds - groundsel, shepherd's purse and annual mercury may flower in January, and, as mentioned above in the section on shoots, field speedwell, chickweed and smooth sow thistle may try to flower also in urban settings, though more usually any flowers remain closed. In 2020 hairy bittercress flowered in a tentative way in the same habitat.

More January pages:


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