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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 an urban weed too, as well as appearing 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 in milder years.

On sheltered garden walls Mexican fleabane (a kind of daisy bush) may still hang on, and very rarely you might see some late surviving yellow corydalis or ivy-leaved toadflax. The occasional periwinkle flower may pop up on a garden flower border or on verges near houses. Later in the month on verges in country villages you may see winter heliotrope, whose strange pink flowers emerge out of a mass of large round leaves (though more normally one just sees the leaves).

Other flowers you see 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 hogweed and yarrow on rural verges. Smooth sow thistle sometimes has flowers (often partly or fully closed) on verges near habitation, while bristly oxtongue may still be in bloom on wasteground or verges near the coast (and sometimes inland). Also by the coast you may just see a few faded or part out flowers on red valerian, silver ragwort or sea mayweed: red valerian can make attempts to flower on garden walls inland too. On railway lines, or in other urban wasteground settings, Oxford ragwort might just manage to survive into December, and very rarely on downland you might see common ragwort still in bloom.

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.

Other 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 on ordinary verges, where they look similar to creeping comfrey, which is found near gardens). Periwinkle leaves sometimes carpet sections of woodland, and are otherwise found on verges near houses. You may just come across the grass-like shoots of stitchwort (usually, for some reason, in woods).

There is still the occasional herb robert plant in shady locations, but a lot fewer than earlier in the autumn, suggesting that many have died off. Some seem to cling on, however (in 2015 they even flowered: see the opening section above), and now and then you see tiny new shoots appearing. Dock is similar, in that most of this year's leaves have long ago faded, but you sometimes see small to medium sized new growth, and the same can sometimes be true of ground elder. By contrast, the hogweed shoots that appeared optimistically in the autumn are nearly all killed off by the frost (though very occasionally survive to flower - see the opening section above).

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: their name refers to the plant's ability to produce new leaves as soon as the old ones are gone, green meaning "evergreen". The foliage of forget-me-nots (the garden variety, which is a kind of wood forget-me-not) may be seen near habitation, and the same is true of French cranesbill. Growing out of garden walls you can see ivy-leaved toadflax leaves.

Other verge leaves you occasionally come across include those of common mallow and greater celandine (not to be confused with lesser celandine, to which it is unrelated). In rough grassy places you see the leaf rosettes of ragwort, which is biennial - that is, it grows in winter from seed this year and will flower next year, then die. The same is true of spear thistle, while by contrast the foliage of creeping thistle dies back for the winter (so as to reappear next year), a process mostly completed in November, though very occasionally in December you may come across some green shoots of it in rough grassland.

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 in built-up areas, as well as those of groundsel and field speedwell, with the latter two also occurring on bare arable fields. New Canadian fleabane rosettes sometimes crop up too in urban corners, while prickly sow thistle produces a rosette on fallow arable fields and other bare ground. Note also the warty rosettes of bristly oxtongue, and those of teasel, which could be mistaken at a glance for the leaves of primroses (which do not appear until late January).

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.

In chalk streams you can see watercress leaves and in coastal areas you can see the luxuriant foliage of alexanders (it was introduced to this country by the Romans as a winter vegetable). On shingle beaches and seafronts you can see the plants of silver ragwort, rock samphire, sea beet, red valerian, tree mallow, stonecrop, buckshorn plantain, common scurvygrass, sea mayweed, hottentot fig and aster (the garden escapee variety). New shoots of yellow-horned poppy may also be evident on shingle beaches, while rock-sea lavender grows on chalk cliff faces. In addition note wild cabbage on the shores around Folkestone and Dover, and sea purslane and sea lavender in salt marshes.

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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