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December trees and shrubs

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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 invariably 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. (In 2022 oaks were still at their golden best in the first week of December, and in 2015, 2022 and 2023 there were still a few green leaves early in the month.)

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 dull gold, brown, yellow or even green leaves also remain on goat willow for some way into December, and weeping willow, larch, hazel, field maple, birch and alder fairly reliably have bits and pieces of foliage until as late as mid month. This can also be true for some lime, sycamore, English elm, and Norway maple.

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.

Trees 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, easily identifiable as the only tree with both catkins and cones, the catkin buds are about 3 centimetres long and green, beige, brown, maroon or (rarely) pinkish. Hazel is recognisable by its myriad straight branches rising up from the ground and has green, beige or brown catkin buds 1-2cm long. These species will see their catkins flower in late January or February (hazel) or at the end of February (alder), but the birch catkins, brown in colour and 1-3cm long, will lie dormant until late March or April.

The twigs of crack willow can have a distinctive orange tinge (more noticeable in sunshine), while weeping willow twigs are more yellowy. Dogwood (a shrub) has twigs of a bright red or maroon. The locations and structures of birds nests are visible - it is interesting to see what sites they chose.

You can also see the round clumps of mistletoe high up in the branches of trees, usually on woodland edges or in open parkland. It grows mostly on poplar and lime, but sometimes on apple, maples and hawthorn too. Its white berries are food for mistle thrushes - hence the bird's name - and also overwintering blackcaps, both of which thereby spread its seeds to new trees. Roe deer will also eat the berries if they can reach them, which is why you don't usually find mistletoe close to the ground.

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 some seeds of field maple, sycamore and (much more rarely) Norway maple or 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 small green oval flower buds at the base of each leaf stalk. Very rarely on some plants this might happen as early as the end of November, but mostly it happens from mid December onwards, or even early in January. (In the very mild December 2015 some even started grow into flower spikes, but does not usually happen till January.)

Notice also that garden privet still retains a lot of foliage - some of it yellowing or going maroon (or more rarely brown) and starting to shed, particularly in the second half or the month. The more pointed leaves of wild privet also turn yellow or yellowy-green and shed more extensively. On downland it can go entirely bare, but otherwise it usually hangs onto to some green leaves all winter.

Elder may also keep a very few leaves, usually at the top of the plant. In milder winters, if you look very closely, may be putting out red buds, showing budburst (that is, a tiny bit of green colour showing through the buds), or even putting out a few tiny leaves towards end of the month.

Snowberry - mostly a suburban plant, though sometimes found rurally - often does not finish shedding its leaves till the end of the first or second week of December, while Russian vine, a climber which drapes itself over suburban fences, producing abundant white flowers in late summer, can also keep foliage till well into December, or even January in mild winters, though it does eventually go bare.

Out in the countryside, dribs and drabs of blackthorn or hawthorn foliage may just scrape into the first week of December in milder years, and even late in the month you can occasionally come across a few leaves on spindle or dog rose (both identifiable by their berries: see section below).

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. Some of these may have grown a bit in size, and there may be some old leaves left from the previous year: by this stage it is often hard to tell which you are looking at. But whatever state the bush is in, it now more or less remains this way until spring, with no further growth.

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 the fluffy white seed heads of traveller's joy, which give it its winter name of old man's beard: it may also still have some yellowy (or pale) green leaves, particularly (though not exclusively) in the first half of the month.

Flowering garden shrubs that get noticed this month include winter jasmine, with its yellow flowers on bare stalks, and white-flowered viburnum, which has some flowers out and others over or still to come. Note also winter flowering cherry (a small tree) whose pink blossom fools some into thinking spring blossoming cherries have come out early. Do not confuse this with a pink-flowered shrub that you also see in gardens this month, which is viburnum farreri.


Berries have become fairly scarce by the start of December, with birds, squirrels and mice having consumed many of them. Blackbirds and thrushes (including migrant redwings and fieldfares) are particularly enthusiastic berry eaters.

Any sloes on blackthorn remaining at the start of the month tend to be shrivelling or rotting away. You can still see some haws, though they mostly fall, shrivel or get eaten as the month goes on: a few may survive into January, however. Much more occasional are sightings of 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 red guelder rose berries on a bare bush.

Yew berries may just 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 privet berries (usually on wild privet, but possible on garden privet if it has been allowed to flower) can be seen all month and into January

Scattered red hips on wild rose bushes also last throughout the month - because they are less palatable to birds or harder to reach? Holly berries 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, either falling or getting eaten by birds (or both: thrushes, redwings and wood pigeons are all supposed to like them).

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. A few may start to ripen from early in the month (going grey with a black cap and then full black), with a few more following as the month goes on. But most will not do this until 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. Wood pigeons will also sometimes jump the gun and eat the berries before they are ripe. To humans the entire plant is poisonous.

In gardens, parks and semi-wild locations, the bright orange berries of firethorn (also known as pyracantha), as well as the red berries of cotoneaster, can still be seen in December, but quantities vary from place to place. Some bushes are thick all month, others bare early in the month, and on others there is evidence of berries falling to the ground or even rotting on the branch.

The difference may be whether they have been targeted as food sources by birds: blackbirds, thrushes, redwings and fieldfares are all supposed to eat them, and one factor here maybe how many fieldfares or redwings migrate to our shores from Scandinavia in any one year. Since the berries of both species appear to ripen much earlier in the autumn, one wonders also if they they also don't taste very nice and only get eaten when or if other food sources have been exhausted.

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. Some are already starting to look a bit rotten. Another berry (of sorts...) that you may notice when you never noticed the plant in flower are the clusters of red-orange seeds on stinking iris, whose fronds look a bit like oversized daffodil leaves.

More December pages:

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