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April intro and woodland flowers

Other April pages: Verge and field flowersBlossom and shrubsThe greening of the treesBirdsButterflies and insectsWeather

Picture: bluebells. Click here for more April woodland flowers photos.

April is the month when spring definitely starts to spring, the month when the countryside finally loses its winter look and bursts into life. Suddenly, everything is trying to flower and blossom at once, leaves return to the trees, and grass and verge plants grow green and tall.

At the start of the month, woodland and fields still have a tired, worn-out look about them. By the end, all is lush and optimistic, but not yet straggly and overgrown as it can become later in May. Throughout April there is some new sign of spring almost every time you step out into the countryside. For the nature lover it is the most exciting time of the year.

Flowers, flowers everywhere

April is the first of four glorious months for wildflowers, though of all the four, April is perhaps the best for the way in which flowers just pop up everywhere, a nice surprise after the drabness of winter. There are three main locations to spot them: on woodland floors, on field and path verges, and in gardens, where wild species tend to be indulged at this time of year.

This is a time of year when hotter or colder weather than usual can have big effects, however. In 2007 and 2011 a sunny March and temperatures into the mid 20s in April made many events described on this and other April pages happen a week to ten days earlier. That was also true in 2014 after a mild winter. In 2024 a mild February and March caused many events to start earlier, but cold weather in the second half of April brought everything back to a more normal schedule.

Years when spring was late include 2021, when a cold April delayed everything by about two weeks. Even more extreme was 2013, when a bitterly cold March left the countryside at the start of April looking little different from mid February. It was not until the second week that year that spring started to any degree and all April events were two to three weeks late.

Other unusual years include 2008, when five inches of snow on 6 April brought what had until then been an early spring to a sudden halt, causing a ten day hiatus before everything returned to the normal schedule. In 2012 a hot March followed by an unusually cool April also caused a lot of confusion, with some flowers and blossom coming out early and then going into a kind of suspended animation, and others coming out late.

2016 was also a curious mixture of early and late: an exceptionally mild November and December 2015 caused some spring events to start as early as January, but a relatively cold February and March then followed. April also saw below average temperatures and ended with a week of wintry northern winds. All of this delayed the onset of spring by two to three weeks, pushing many second half of April flowers into May. However in 2010, despite the coldest winter in 30 years, most flowers and blossom were on time.

Woodland flowers

A unique feature of April – and indeed of the temperate zone of the northern hemisphere – are the flowers that carpet woodland floors. These flowers are specially adapted to appear before the leaves come out on the trees and so grow in places that no other flora can (later flowering plants being shaded out by tree foliage). The most famous one – the bluebell – often seems to leave things right till the last minute, only flowering once the beech and oak woods its favours are in full leaf.

At the start of the month the star attraction is the wood anemone – quite literally, as they open to beautiful white stars on warm days (facing the sun, if it is shining; looking rather confused and facing in different directions if it is not), closing to demure bells at night or in cooler weather. Since they spread only slowly - mainly by underground rhizomes, though they do also produce seed and get spread by badgers - they are considered an indicator of ancient woodland.

This simple plant, consisting of a stalk, three leaves and one flower, is at its best in the first two weeks of the month, usually lasting long enough to overlap with early bluebells. In some years, if their start in March is delayed, they remain out in force well into the second half, and even in normal years a few may last till the end of the month. (In 2013, exceptionally, they did not appear until the second week of April and lasted till the first week of May.)

Isolated bluebell flowers can be found as early as the first week of April - even in late March in places - but on average they start to come out in force mid month and are best in the last week in April and the first week in May. There are variations in this from year to year and place to place, however.

It is not unusual, for example, for bluebells to make an early start due to warm weather in March, with good showings in places in the first or second week of April (as in 2024, 2020 and 2017) - or even in late March (in 2012 and 2016: the latter due to very mild weather in December and early January, which saw some bluebells flower even early in March) - and then to be set back by cooler weather in April and revert to the normal timings described above.

In 2019 and 2014 an early start was followed by an early end to the season, however, with most woods fading in the last week of April. Meanwhile in the hot and dry springs of 2007 and 2011 bluebells came out at the normal time and were at best at the end of the third week, but they were largely over by the end of the month due to the lack of rain.

In 2018 a cold March and early April meant that bluebells had barely started by mid month. But a very hot third week then caused all the leaf foliage to come out at once, shading them out. Many woods consequently never looked more than half out for the rest of the season.

In cold April 2021, though isolated flowers were seen from the start of the month, with many more coming out mid month as normal, it was not until the second week of May that they were really at their best. In 2013, 2010, 2006 and 2005 March was so cold that bluebell woods were barely out by the end of April and lasted well into May.

In a normal year, wood anemones overlap with bluebells by a week to ten days, making a pretty display when they are present in the same wood. But in 2016 the late flowering of wood anemones meant the two came out concurrently, while in 2018 wood anemones were completely over before the bluebells came out. Equally, normally bluebells coincide with beech leaves appearing, but in 2016 they were well ahead, with beech leaves not out till the first week of May. The same also happened in 2017, while in 2022 they were about ten days ahead.

Whatever the timing, trying to catch bluebells at their best is a frustrating business. One of the most painful experiences is to do a walk past a bluebell wood that is not yet in full bloom or one that is past its peak. At best, all flowers on each stalk are open and each flower is fat, and the woods are a magical blue-purple sea.

Another dramatic woodland display comes towards the end of the month (though in places as early as mid month) with the flowering of ramsons (commonly known as wild garlic, though they are in fact only a relative of the variety we eat). Their distinctive smell usually alerts you to their presence before you see their white blooms, carpeting damper woodlands and the shady sides of streams. They tend not to be at their best till the early part of May, however.

You can also find lesser celandines and primroses in woods - sometimes in great profusion (celandines in particular can carpet areas of woodland). These tend to be at their best in the first half of the month but some can be found right till the end. Violets (usually dog violets) can be found all month.

Other woodland plants are less noticed, though in some cases it is due to their plainness rather than their rarity. Dog's mercury covers vast swathes of woodland in April but its flower is so inconspicuous it is rarely noticed. It does, however, provide a welcome wash of green on the woodland floor. There are in fact male and female plants, and in the second half of the month the latter are producing tiny green seeds.

There is also a fair amount of pendulous sedge, which has long thin leaves like an iris. It produces flower tassels which start off thin and brown, get thicker and turn yellow (producing clouds of pollen if you touch them), and then confusingly turn brown again as they go over. Timing of this varies from place to place, but it can happen in the second half of April or not till the first half of May.

More elusive is wood sorrel, which puts out white flowers in shy clumps in damp woodland spots: there often seem to be many more leaves than flowers. It generally goes over towards the end of the month, but survives in some places into May. (In 2016 it did not really come out in force until May, while in 2021 the best time was the last few days of April and the first ten days of May. 2023 seemed to be a bad year for wood sorrel and I only saw a few flowers in late April and early May.)

Even more inconspicuous mat formers include moschatel, also called townhall clock for its tiny four-sided greeny-yellow flowers (like wood anemone, it is an indicator of ancient woodlands), and golden saxifrage which forms greeny-yellow patches in damp places (either in woodland or in roadside ditches). Both tend to be seen more in the first two thirds of the month.

Note also ivy-leaved speedwell, which forms large mats on woodland floors, but has flowers so tiny and so pale they are almost invisible. Often at a casual glance it seems as if its blooms are all over, but close inspection reveals some are still out even late in the month.

Other specialist woodland flowers include goldilocks buttercup - the first buttercup of the year, identifiable by its unusual thin leaves and misshapen petals - which appears from mid month (or as early as the second week some years), and herb robert, which has scattered pink flowers: isolated examples of this can be seen from the start of the month some years, or not till later in others.

Look out also towards the end of the month for delicate mauve wood speedwell, whose flowers somehow always look rather tentative. Be careful when identifying this, though, because germander speedwell - with larger and bluer flowers, though looking a bit like wood speedwell when it first comes out - can be starting in woods at the same time.

Also towards the end of the month you may just see woodruff along woodland paths: its distinctive ruff of leaves and small white flowers can produce a surprisingly enchanting effect en masse, though it is usually May before it appears in any quantity.

In bluebell woods (and flowering at the same time) you can find the unimaginatively-named early purple orchid, whose purple or pink spikes make a striking contrast to the sea of blue. Clumps of yellow archangel - a yellow deadnettle - perform a similar function (note that there are two varieties of this - a native one and a very common garden escapee named "argentatum" whose silver-streaked leaves are evident all winter). So do the delicate double-petalled white stars of stitchwort, better known as a plant of path verges but also perfectly at home in lighter patches in woods, and occasionally appearing in very large concentrations.

Other verge flowers that can also be found in woodlands later in April include ground ivy, bugle, forget-me-not, red campion, wild strawberry, garlic mustard and the weird flowers of cuckoo pint (much harder to find than their leaves are earlier in the year). Cow parsley can sometimes be seen too (usually towards the end of the month), and so can cuckoo flower (aka lady's smock: more likely to be seen earlier in the month). The easily overlooked wavy bittercress also grows by paths or in shady spots.

Woodland also plays host to stinging nettles, cleavers and wood spurge, the first two of these contributing to the lushness of less densely wooded areas, growing from little more than shoots at the start of the month to as much as 40 centimetres tall by its end. Cleavers can sometimes spoil the sea of blue in bluebell woods, and the same is true of bracken, which uncurls in the second half of the month.

Rarer flowers that you might see in the second half include yellow pimpernel, a ground creeping plant, and the pink coralroot (which looks a bit like cuckoo flower) in the Chilterns or eastern Weald - it grows wild only in these two places. Three-nerved sandwort is a kind of small-flowered woodland chickweed which occasionally crops up, and at the end of the month you may see sanicle in chalk woodland, a tiny and rather atypical relative of cow parsley: May is its more usual flowering time, however.

More April pages:

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