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January trees and shrubs

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

January can see the start of the tree flowering season, with the lengthening of short hazel catkin buds into long yellow "lambs tails". Isolated trees can come out ahead of the rest, but the main wave is not until the third week (2014 and 2015), the fourth week (2012, 2018 and 2019), or February (2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2016 and 2017). Pollen from the catkins can cause the first symptoms of hayfever - sneezing, sniffling and eye itching. Look also for the very tiny red female flowers (the catkins being the male ones) which will eventually become the nuts.

Crack willow twigs (and those of some white willow cultivars) shine bright orange in the landscape, as do the more yellowy branches of weeping willows and the reddish twigs of dogwood. Other trees have leaf buds ready for action - black for ash, sticky brown for horse chestnut.

On birch (both silver and downy) you can see catkin buds but they do not yet flower: this tree may also still have some desiccated seed cylinders. Alder has both last year's cones and this year's catkin buds (it is the only tree that has both), while London plane retains its large round seed cases. Beech twigs can still sport empty nut cases, and a few winged seeds - now desiccated - can cling to lime trees. A very few sycamores and field maples also have some seeds still clinging on.

Ash trees have seeds too - looking like bunches of keys - but they tend to thin out as the month goes on (this is very variable from tree to tree, however, with some retaining lots of seeds and some going nearly bare). The nobbly things hanging down from the twigs that can be seen when the seeds fall off are cauliflower galls, made by an insect.

You may also still see some dead oak and beech leaves still on smaller trees or lower branches though most have fallen off long ago. Beech hedges that have been trimmed in the past year keep dead foliage all winter.

Meanwhile, some shrubs are already putting out new leaves - for example honeysuckle. It can keep some foliage all winter in suburban spots, though it goes bare in woodland. Some of these woodland honeysuckles then put out new leaves in December while others follow in January. Buddleia never goes entirely bare, with new leaf shoots appearing as soon as the old ones fall in late October: they remain on the plant throughout the winter, but do not grow any larger.

Garden privet also retains some foliage. Early in January it may still be shedding leaves, with some yellow or maroon in colour, but this largely ceases by late in the month. Where it has been trimmed (which it usually has, being most commonly seen as a garden hedge), there are also some tiny new leaves among the full-sized ones - shoots that appeared in late autumn, ready to grow in March. During February you then see tiny green buds appear, the start of the new season's leaf growth. Wild privet goes thinner than its garden cousin but usually retains some foliage: again, there can still be some yellowing in early January but it usually has finished later in the month.

Elder can sometimes put out maroon buds and then new leaf shoots, but these are very small and grow very slowly, if at all. Bramble leaves stop yellowing and the ones that remain are green - or at least that is true of ones in woodland or on reasonably sheltered verges; in open fields they can go almost entirely bare, with just a few maroon leaves left. As in December, if you look closely, particularly at more sheltered brambles, you may see small white side shoots on their branches that will turn into new foliage in March.

Cherry laurel (which has thick glossy evergreen leaves and so is often mistaken for rhododendron) can be seen starting to push up the rows of candle-like spikes that will later become its flowers - more in the second half, though sometimes earlier. (In the winter of 2015-16, cherry laurel buds appeared in December in response to a very mild winter up to that point, and there were even some flowers out in January). Rhododendron also has flower buds in January (some of which appeared as early as October), but they are quite different - a conventional oval bud in the centre of its leaf rosettes. On yew trees you may see what look like clusters of unfolding needles but are in fact a gall parasitising the plant. In the second half of the month you may see tiny orange balls - the new flower buds - appearing on male yews.

In gardens winter jasmine is a bare stalked shrub with yellow flowers and there are also winter flowering cherry trees (confusing some into thinking that ordinary cherry trees are flowering early): both can be starting to fade at the end of the month, however. Viburnum is a garden shrub that has white flowers this time of year and you can sometimes find blue flowers on rosemary in milder years or more sheltered locations. On heaths and downs gorse has a few yellow flowers, as it has done since as far back as October. In January 2016, after a very mild December, cherry plum blossom was also coming out in force by mid January and was full out at the end of the month, but February or March is the more normal time for this.

Draped across hedgerows on chalk soils you can still see old man's beard (the seeds of traveller's joy, which is a wild variety of clematis) though it is starting to blow away by now. Most berries have fallen or been eaten by birds, but in places a few hips and wild privet berries hang on, as well as the occasional haws or spindle or black bryony berries. Holly berries, so abundant in December, disappear very quickly after Christmas, presumably eaten by birds, though a few may survive in places till mid month.

Thrushes, blackbirds and wood pigeons also eagerly await the ripening of ivy berries, a key winter food for them (though the whole plant is poisonous to humans). Like the flowering of the plant, this varies considerably in timing from bush to bush: January is probably the peak month, though some can be ripe in December and others be still not yet ripe in late February. The ripe berries are black with a black cap (green with a black cap and then grey with a black cap otherwise), but the easiest way to tell when they are ready is through wood pigeons, who fly up with a great clatter when you walk past a bush they were feeding on.

Two other types of berry which are popular foods for birds (especially blackbirds, thrushes, fieldfares and redwings) have usually all been eaten by the start of January, but may just have some remaining fruits in the first half. One is cotoneaster, with its red berries, and the other is firethorn (also known as pyracantha), which has berries that are usually orange but sometimes red. Both of these might be termed semi-wild plants since they are essentially garden escapees. The same is true of snowberry, which may still sport some of its distinctive white berries, though they are disappearing by now. The long-leaved plant with a bright cluster of orange berries that you mainly see in gardens, but sometimes in the wild, is stinking iris.

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