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December flowers

Other December pages: Woodland and hedgerowBirds and insects • Weather

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 (very rarely also red deadnettles) 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 on grassy verges and 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, and very rarely you might see an adventurous periwinkle flower or some late surviving yellow corydalis. 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 and wild radish on arable fields (usually a few tattered flowers hanging on in both cases), and on verges hogweed, yarrow, smooth sow thistle (its flowers often fully or part closed), hawkweed oxtongue and bristly oxtongue, the latter two particularly, but not exclusively, 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 campion and herb robert, as well as - at the end of the month - snowdrops and crocuses. Though it was not as mild, 2020 also saw the very occasional snowdrop flowering as early as the 4th of the month.

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, wood avens and cleavers (aka goosegrass). Some of these have been there since earlier in the autumn, though in December others join them, pushing through the leaf litter.

The same is true of dandelion and stinging nettles, with some quite mature plants but other ones obviously new. Some of the 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 harbinger 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 you can sometimes see small new ones. Just occasionally you also come across fairly new-looking ground elder shoots.

Other flower plants one sees have 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 can be found in woodland, as can foxglove leaves in clearings (and also sometimes on verges). Periwinkle leaves sometimes carpet sections of woodland, usually but not always near houses.

Also on verges you can see green alkanet leaves - mainly new ones at this time of year, last year's leaves having 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 spot the foliage of forget-me-nots (the garden variety, which is a kind of wood forget-me-not, and usually found near habitation), as well as common mallow. Occasionally you may come across the grass-like shoots of stitchwort.

Ragwort is biennial - that is, the leaf rosettes you see in winter grew from seed this year and will flower next year, then die - and the same is true of spear thistle. Prickly sow thistle also produces a rosette on bare ground such as fallow arable fields, 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 bare grassy verges and in odd urban corners you can see big patches of chickweed, which looks as if it is about to flower but mostly does not. The same can be true of the smooth sow thistle plants which survive in built-up areas, as well as those of groundsel and field speedwell, with the latter two also occurring on bare arable fields. 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 (it was introduced to this country by the Romans as a winter vegetable) and the plants of silver ragwort, rock sea-lavender, rock samphire, sea beet, red valerian, tree mallow, stonecrop, sea mayweed, common scurvygrass, 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. In mild December 2015 this happened in the second week, while in 2020 it happened in the third week. In both years dog's mercury and bluebell shoots also appeared at the very end of the month, while in 2015 cuckoo pint leaves did too. At the same time in both December 2016 and 2020 I saw hemlock water dropwort shoots in rivers and ditches.

More December pages:

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