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December woodland and hedgerow

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Picture: holly berries. Click here for more December photos.

December is the deadest of all the months in the natural world - midwinter from a nature point of view even if it is not so weather-wise. But it is not entirely lacking in things to see. With so many plants in hibernation, it is interesting to notice those that are still active. The lack of foliage also reveals the structures of trees, and opens up views that are otherwise hidden.

That is assuming that the leaves have in fact fallen. Oaks not infrequently keep some dead leaves on their branches into December. Mostly they are blown off fairly quickly, but on a few lower branches and on saplings they may last all winter. Equally, beech hedges that have been trimmed in the previous year also keep dead foliage all winter, and very occasionally you see some dead leaves on the lower boughs or saplings of beech trees too.

Scattered golden or brown leaves also remain on goat willow for some way into December, and weeping willow, larch, hazel and field maple fairly reliably have some dribs and drabs of foliage in the first week or so of the month. At the same time you may also see some remaining leaves on birch, lime, alder or sycamore.

One late year for leaf fall was 2005, when there was about 30 percent leaf cover - including some green leaves - at the start of December. Beech, alder, field maple, London plane and especially oak foliage were in evidence as late as the 11th of December.

As in November, woodland paths are still thickly covered in leaf litter early in the month, mitigating the effect of the winter mud. In beech woods, fallen leaves can completely obscure the route of paths. But as the month goes on the leaves rot (assisted by earthworms, who draw them down into the soil and consume them) and by its end paths are softer underfoot.

The woodland in winter

Once the leaves are gone, the buds of next year's leaves are revealed, seemingly ready to burst open at any moment, but in fact not due to do so for another four months. One can amuse oneself by identifying the trees from these buds - ash, for example, has black buds and twigs that turn upwards at the end, while horse chestnut has sticky brown buds and hybrid black poplar rather prominent reddish-brown ones. Other trees can be identified by the dead leaves that lie beneath them, or by their distinctive outlines - oaks being one example.

Meanwhile, hazel, alder and birch have already put forward the buds of their catkins: they have in fact been there since July. On alder, which is easily identifiable as the only tree with both catkins and cones, the catkin buds are 2-3 centimetres long and green, beige or sometimes pinkish. Hazel is recognisable by its myriad straight branches rising up from the ground and has beige catkin buds 1-2cm long. Both these species see their catkins flower in February (or sometimes late January), but the birch catkins will lie dormant till late March.

The twigs of crack willow have a distinctive orange tinge (more noticeable in sunshine), while weeping willow twigs are a more yellowy colour. You can also look out for the round balls of mistletoe high up in the branches of trees, usually on woodland edges or in open parkland. It grows particularly on poplar and lime but apparently also on apple and willow. At this time of year you can clearly see its white berries, a popular food for mistle thrushes, who thereby spread its seeds to new trees. The locations and structures of birds nests are also visible - it is interesting to see what sites they chose.

A few trees also retain some seeds - notably ash, on which big bunches of "keys" hang down, though some may start to fall off in December. London planes also hold onto their globular seed cases after their leaves have gone and limes keep some of their (now desiccated) winged seeds. On beech trees you can see empty nut cases on the end of the twigs and birch may retain some of its dried seed cylinders. In places, a few seeds of field maple, sycamore and hornbeam may remain on their twigs.

Hedgerow and shrubs

Hedgerows are drab and brown in December - but not entirely. If you look closely you will see that not all shrubs and plants have lost their leaves. Ivy is one notable evergreen, as are rhododendron and cherry laurel. The latter two both have big rubbery leaves, but can be told apart by the buds on them. On rhododendrons these are large and sit at the centre of a leaf cluster, looking like flowers about to open, though they are in fact new leaves waiting to unfurl. Cherry laurel, meanwhile, puts out green oval flower buds at the base of each leaf stalk, either towards the end of the month or in early January, but sometimes earlier. In the very mild December 2015 they appeared early in the month and started to grow into flower spikes, but this was very unusual.

Notice also that garden privet still retains a lot of foliage - some of it yellowing or going maroon or brown. Its wild version - which has more pointed leaves - also yellows and goes much barer, but usually hangs onto some leaves. Elder may keep a very few leaves too, usually at the top of the plant, and in milder winters, if you look very closely, may be putting out red buds, or even showing budburst (that is, a tiny bit of green colour showing through the buds, the first stage to putting out new leaves) at the end of the month. Snowberry may just keep a few leaves into the first few days of December, and the same is occasionally true of spindle.

Bramble retains quite a lot of leaves - at least when it is growing under the cover of trees: out in the open it can lose the majority of its foliage as the month goes on. In either case some of the remaining leaves may be showing yellow, red or maroon tints. Towards the end of the month you may see new leaf buds appearing on its stems, ready for the spring.

Buddleia already has new leaf shoots, which it put out as long ago as early October. They do not grow any bigger until March, however. By the start of December most of last year's foliage has fallen off, but some may survive, either green or turning yellow. Honeysuckle tendrils, even out in the middle of the woods, can also have tiny new leaflets from quite early in December (or sometimes even early in November). Suburban ones may never go bare at all, keeping quite a bit of foliage from the autumn as well as adding new shoots.

On heathland, gorse can sport some yellow flowers, as it has done since October. In hedgerows on chalk soils there are also the fluffy white seed heads of traveller's joy, which give it its winter name of old man's beard: in the first part of the month it may also still have some yellowy-green leaves. Notice too the bright red twigs that mark out that otherwise little noticed shrub, dogwood.

Flowering garden shrubs that get noticed this month include winter jasmine, with its yellow flowers on bare stalks, and winter flowering cherry, whose pink blossom fools some into thinking spring blossoming cherries have come out early. You can also continue to see white flowers on viburnum, usually a mix of some that are full out, and others over or still to come.

Berries

Berries have become fairly scarce by the start of December, with birds, squirrels and mice having consumed most of them. Blackbirds and thrushes are particularly enthusiastic berry eaters.

Any sloes (blackthorn) or haws (hawthorn) remaining at the start of the month tend to be shrivelling or rotting away: most fall to the ground as the month goes on, though a few survive into January. More occasional sightings are the fluted pink berries of spindle (which can split to expose an orange centre), the red berry strings of black bryony draped over a hedge, or guelder rose berries on a bare bush. Yew berries can survive into December but are generally gone by late November: if you look very closely you may see the tiny buds of next year's flowers on male trees. Black wild privet berries can occasionally be seen even at the end of the month or into January

Scattered red hips on wild rose bushes last throughout the month - because they are less palatable to birds or harder to reach? Holly berries, meanwhile, are at their peak, which is one reason why they feature in Christmas decorations. You can see a few on the ground, but most stay on the bush, only to disappear fairly rapidly at the end of the month, presumably eaten by birds.

Perhaps the most abundant berries of all in December are those of ivy, but they are generally not yet ripe, remaining green with a brown cap. Some are starting to ripen at the month's end (going grey with a black cap and then full black: this happened in places from mid month in 2019), but most will not do this until well into January, or even later. When they do, they are food for thrushes, blackbirds and wood pigeons, the latter clattering up noisily as you approach as if guilty to have been caught snacking. To humans the entire plant is poisonous.

In gardens, parks and semi-wild locations, the bright orange berries of firethorn (also known as pyracantha) tend to disappear quite quickly in the first half of December, if they have not already done so in November. They are a popular food for birds such as blackbirds, thrushes, redwings and fieldfares at this time of year, but since they appear to ripen much earlier in the year one suspects that they don't taste very nice and only get eaten once other food sources have been exhausted. By the second half of the month the ones left are probably those inaccessible to birds for some reason. Much the same goes for the red berries of cotoneaster, though you can still see one with quite a lot of berries even late in the month.

Note also the prominent white berries of the snowberry: they have in fact been there since as early as July but suddenly stand out now that the plant's foliage has fallen off. Another berry that you may notice when you never noticed the plant in flower are the bright orange clusters on stinking iris, whose fronds look a bit like oversized daffodil leaves.

More December pages:


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