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December flowers

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Picture: groundsel starting to flower. Click here to see more December flower shoot photos

The idea of wildflowers in December might seem completely ridiculous, but surprisingly you do see them occasionally. Early in the month is the best time, but even after hard frosts isolated examples can still pop up.

Flowers that can be seen include white deadnettles on verges (also red deadnettles in milder winters) and daisies scattered across mown or grazed grass. Canadian fleabane, groundsel, shepherd's purse and annual mercury may appear as urban weeds, the last three also occasionally on arable fields. Chickweed is another urban weed and also appears in pasture fields, but generally any flowers it puts forward in December remain closed. The same is true of field speedwell (urban and sometimes arable), which puts out leaves in December and sometimes seems about to flower but usually does not succeed. Also often closed up are the occasional dandelions that you see in grassland milder years.

On sheltered garden walls Mexican fleabane (a kind of daisy bush) may still hang on. Later in the month on verges in country villages you may see the strange winter heliotrope, whose pink flowers emerge out of a mass of large round leaves.

Other flowers I have seen occasionally in December, usually early in the month, include scentless mayweed (usually a few tattered flowers hanging on) and wild radish on arable fields, and on verges hogweed, yarrow, smooth sow thistle, hawkweed oxtongue and bristly oxtongue, the latter two usually on the coast. Also by the coast you may just see a few faded or part out flowers on red valerian and sea mayweed.

In the very mild December of 2015 (the warmest on record) there was also some daffodil, primrose, red deadnettle, red campion, herb robert and periwinkle, as well as - at the end of the month - snowdrops and crocuses.

Next year's flowers

While actual flowers may be scarce, signs of flowers to come are everywhere if you have a practised eye. Even in the depths of winter plants are grabbing territory for the spring ahead and putting forth green shoots.

On verges you can see the new leaves of cow parsley (which really do look like parsley at this time of year), as well as the new shoots of garlic mustard and cleavers (aka goosegrass). All of these have been in place since October and are definitely new growth from seed, grabbing their territory for next year's flowering season, though in December you can see new shoots of all three poking up through the leaf litter.

Likewise tiny dandelion, catsear/hawkbit, herb bennet (aka wood avens) and stinging nettle shoots push through the leaf litter, joining more established shoots of the same plants that are already in place on verges and (in the case of dandelions, catsears and hawkbits) on grassland. 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 opening section above). On path verges you can also see some new shoots of nipplewort, which have a distinctively-shaped end to their leaves.

Towards the end of the month (as early as mid month in milder winters) all of these may be joined on bare verges by the tiny heart-shaped leaves of lesser celandine, an exciting reminder of the spring to come as they will rapidly increase in frequency in January to become almost ubiquitous in February and then flower in March.

There is the occasional herb robert shoot in shady locations but many seem to die away in December (though in very mild December 2015 many survived and even flowered, while in 2018 they survived without flowering). The hogweed shoots that appeared optimistically in the autumn are also generally killed off by the frost (though very occasionally in milder winters they survive to flower - see the opening section above). Most of this year's dock leaves have faded by now, though in in mid December you can start to see small new ones appearing.

Other flower plants one sees are perennials, which flowered this year and will 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 shady verges you can see the silver-streaked "argentatum" variety of yellow archangel, while woodruff (and possibly some wood sorrel leaves) can be found in woodland.

Also on verges you can see green alkanet leaves - mainly new ones at this time of year, last year's leaves having mostly died away by now: its name refers to its ability to produce new leaves as soon as the old ones are gone, green meaning "evergreen". You can also sometimes spot the foliage of forget-me-nots (the garden variety, which is a kind of wood forget-me-not, and usually found near habitation) and common mallow: all of these are perennial.

Meanwhile foxglove (often in areas cleared of trees or scrub) and ragwort 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. Prickly sow thistle also produces a rosette, usually on bare ground, and very occasionally you may see some remaining green shoots of creeping thistle, though most have died back long ago. Equally occasional is the foliage of greater celandine (not to be confused with lesser celandine, to which it is unrelated), while growing out of walls you can still see ivy-leaved toadflax leaves.

On wasteground and in odd urban corners there can be an upsurge in chickweed, which looks as if it is about to flower but mostly does not. Groundsel and smooth sow thistle shoots may crop up in the same habitats. Some arable fields are covered with the green shoots of winter wheat, looking like blades of grass: they stay this way till March, when they start to grow taller. If you see a field covered in cabbage-like plants this is oilseed rape: make a note of the location and come back in April to see a sea of yellow flowers.

By the sea you can see the luxuriant foliage of alexanders (the reason 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. In addition, note wild cabbage on the shores around Dover and Folkestone, and sea purslane and sea lavender in salt marshes. Also by the sea - though inland on bare ground as well - you can see the warty rosettes of bristly oxtongue (which is annual or biennial) and (more rarely) the more wrinkly ones of teasel (which last the winter and then die off before the plant flowers),

Towards the very end of the month you may see the new shoots of daffodils in parks and gardens and on suburban verges. In mild December 2015 shoots also appeared that normally would only be seen in January or later, including dog's mercury, cuckoo pint and bluebell, while in late December 2016 I saw hemlock water dropwort shoots in rivers and ditches.

More December pages:

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