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December flowers

Other December pages: Trees and shrubsBirds 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 you do see them occasionally. Early in the month is the best time, but even after hard frosts isolated examples can still pop up.

Species include white deadnettles on verges - very rarely also red deadnettles - and daisies scattered across mown or grazed grass. Groundsel, shepherd's purse and annual mercury may appear as urban weeds and 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 corners, bare verges 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, and right at the start of the month there may be some dribs and drabs of michaelmas daisy. On verges in country villages you can see the large round leaves of the invasive winter heliotrope, whose strange pink flower spikes may start to appear later in the month, though it is very variable in its timing from place to place.

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 (usually partly or fully closed) on verges near habitation or in urban areas, 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, and I saw one clump out in a suburban garden on 8 December 2023

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 those of garlic mustard, wood avens and cleavers. Some of these have been there since early 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 very similar 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, and maybe some catsear or hawkbit rosettes - superficially a bit similar to dandelions - though they are not very conspicuous at this time of year.

In the second half month (in places as as early as the first week 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. They increase rapidly in frequency towards the end of the month or 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 (while also sometimes seeding anew on bare ground). In grassland or on grassy verges these include buttercups - very common - as well as cranesbills, cinquefoil, ribwort plantain, yarrow, clover and daisies, while on downland a distinctive shoot is that of salad burnet.

On shady verges you can see the silver-streaked "argentatum" variety of yellow archangel, while the rather tired old leaves of woodruff (sometimes with new shoots sprouting out of them) can be found in woodland. Note also foxglove leaves in woodland clearings or on other bare ground - 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 occasionally 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 occasionally you see new shoots appearing, sometimes in great profusion. Dock is similar, in that most of this year's leaves have long ago faded, but you sometimes see definite new growth - small to medium-sized new leaves - 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 dying away and new ones appearing: the "green" in the plant's name, meaning "evergreen", refers to this ability to replace its foliage straightaway. Leaves of forget-me-nots (the garden variety, which is a kind of wood forget-me-not) may sometimes be seen near habitation, and growing out of garden walls you can see the foliage of ivy-leaved toadflax, Mexican fleabane and red valerian.

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): this process is 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, groundsel and field speedwell in built-up areas, with the latter two also occurring on bare arable fields.

Prickly sow thistle also produces small rosettes on fallow arable fields and other bare ground, while the occasional Canadian fleabane leaves you see tend to be exclusively urban. 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, albeit in a neat straight line: they stay this way till March, when they start to grow taller. If you see an arable field covered in cabbage-like leaves, it is quite likely to be oilseed rape: make a note of the location and come back in April to see a glorious sea of yellow flowers. However another possibility is the rather similar stubble turnip, which is a winter crop grown for sheep to eat (if you see them in the act, then this identification is certain).

In chalk streams you can see watercress leaves, while the poisonous fools' watercress has almost identical leaves and occurs in both flowing water and still ditches and ponds. 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 there are the plants of silver ragwort, rock samphire, sea beet, red valerian, tree mallow, stonecrop, buckshorn plantain, 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 in saltmarshes, on the banks of tidal rivers, and on other odd bits of bare ground by the sea.

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, 2020 and 2022 I saw hemlock water dropwort shoots in rivers and ditches.

More December pages:

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