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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 and 2018), 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. Ash trees still have their seeds - looking like bunches of keys - but they can start to fall off during the month. Beech twigs can still sport empty nut cases, and a few winged seeds - now desiccated - can cling to lime trees. In some years sycamore and field maple also have some bunches of seeds clinging to their twigs: if so, they mostly fall off during January.

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 may keep dead foliage all winter.

Meanwhile, some plants 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 seems to go 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 never loses all its foliage: it stops yellowing in January and you can see tiny new leaves, though it is hard to tell if these are new or just shoots that appeared in late autumn, ready to grow in March.

Wild privet goes thinner than its garden cousin but usually retains some foliage. Elder can sometimes put out new leaf shoots though they 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 2015-6, 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 starts to produce flower buds in January, 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. At the very end of the month you can 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. 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 some 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 may hang on, and just maybe some haws, spindle, black bryony or a holly berry or two. The latter disappear very quickly after Christmas, presumably eaten by birds.

Thrushes, blackbirds and wood pigeons also eagerly await the ripening of ivy berries (poisonous to humans but not for them). The timing of this is very variable, both from year to year and bush to bush: often it occurs in January, though it can be in February or December. Once the berries are completely black they are quickly consumed.

The orange and red berries that have adorned firethorn (also known as pyracantha) and cotoneaster shrubs since August are also popular food for birds (for example blackbirds, thrushes and flocks of fieldfares and redwings) - if they have not already been eaten or fallen in December. Is it that they don't taste that nice and the birds only eat them when they are desperate, or is it only now they come to full ripeness? 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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