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February flowers

Other February pages: Trees & shrubsBirds, insects and animals • Weather

Picture: crocuses, open on a sunny day. Click here for more February flower photos.

February is a month when the countryside is brown and drab, the mud can seem unending, and winter is reluctant to loosen its grip. Yet if you keep your eyes peeled you can see signs of life returning.

Snowdrops are the star attraction this month. Brought to England in Tudor times, they traditionally came out on Candlemas, 2 February. These days you can see scattered ones quite early in January, but it is not usually until the end of that month that they start to come out in force. They are then at their best in February, adorning gardens, churchyards and village verges in their demure little clusters, as well as being found in wilder places such as woods and by the side of country lanes. Some years they start to fade as early as the third week, the first poignant die-back of the year: in other years this happens more towards the end of the month.

This is also the peak time for crocuses. Almost always found in parks and gardens rather than in the wild, they appear in the last week of January and the first week of February (occasionally as early as mid January or not till mid February) and then last for the rest of the month. When a sunny day tempts them to open their star-shaped flowers, it feels as if spring has arrived.

As February progresses you might also see some lesser celandines on path and road verges. Early in the month these are isolated examples in sheltered spots, but in the second half you may start to see quite a few in places; equally in cold years they may not appear at all. Daffodils come out here and there, and can also start to appear in force at the month's end. Look out too for the occasional adventurous primrose, and at the very end of the month maybe some tiny purple sweet violets. Very occasionally white deadnettle may flower on verges.

Daisies dot mown grass, and may increase in number towards the month's end. An old adage says spring has not come until you can cover nine daisies with your foot - something that is not supposed to happen till late March or early April, but in a possible sign of climate change you might just manage it at the very end of February in this part of the world. There are very occasional stunted dandelions on verges, growing low to the ground with almost no stems. Make sure what you are seeing is not coltsfoot, however: it has a dandelion-like flower, but no leaves (at this time of year, at least) and can appear towards the end of the month.

Most years you also see red deadnettle, and in milder years you come across field speedwell, as well as small amounts of chickweed, shepherd's purse and groundsel. All of these can be found on the edges of arable fields (or, in the case of chickweed, in pasture) but are more likely at this time of year in bare or short grass places on road or path verges, or as urban weeds, a location where they may be joined by hairy bittercress and annual mercury.

Other flowers you may notice are garden plants which can escape into semi-wild situations. One is periwinkle, which produces lots of foliage (sometimes carpeting roadside banks or even woods) and may put forth a few purple flowers in February. In the first half of the month in churchyards, and sometimes in wilder spots, you may still find aconites - yellow flowers with a ruff of green leaves. At the same time and sometimes later you can still see winter heliotrope - an invasive plant with large rounded leaves and stalks of strange pink flowers which is often found on village verges.

Green-flowered stinking hellebore, which usually seems to be a garden escapee, does occasionally turn up wild on lime soils, either in woods or on downland (eg on Denbies Hillside near Dorking), while the even more elusive green hellebore (shady habitats on chalk or limestone: there is one nice patch on the Greensand Way to the west of Ightham Mote) also flowers at this time of year. Later in the month in mild years you may just come across some early summer snowflake (which looks like an oversized snowdrop), lungwort, or grape hyacinth - see March flowers for more on these.

Green shoots

In fields, on verges and on there woodland floor there is plenty of evidence of other flowers to come later in the spring, with many green shoots in evidence. You need botanical skills to identify them, but even the casual observer can see an increase in activity during February. (For photos of many of the shoots mentioned below, click here.)

The most obvious and easiest to identify is cow parsley, whose leaves can be seen everywhere. At this time of year the plant really does look like parsley, though it is not: its name means "fool's parsley". Some have been growing since October, but some further new shoots appear in January; they will (mostly) not flower until May, however.

The shoots of cleavers are also common, some quite well-developed now having also been around since as early as October, others obviously new. Lots more of the waxy leaves of cuckoo pint (aka lords and ladies) appear in early February too, joining the few that appeared in January: when they first emerge they are in curled tubes, but then open out into large arrow-heads.

The shovel-shaped leaves of lesser celandine are everywhere by now, both on verges and in woodland. In the same habitats herb robert shoots (possible to confuse at a casual glance with cow parsley) continue to be joined by new ones.

From early in the month the leaves - initially very tiny - of bluebells start to be seen in the woods where they will bloom, and you can see the shoots of dog's mercury, an inconspicuous plant that nevertheless brings swathes of green to woodland floors, and is found near hedgerows on lane verges too.

The mat-forming leaves of ivy-leaved speedwell can also be seen on bare verges and in woods, though it is not till the end of the month that they achieve the shape that gives them their name and so become easy to identify. Tiny new leaves of ramsons (aka wild garlic) appear in the second or third week, though you might struggle to notice them till they grow a bit bigger later in the month. The strong garlic smell they give off when you rub them are a reliable way to identify them.

More rarely in woodland, you may come across the foliage of woodruff, foxglove leaves in clearings (or on roadside banks), and new shoots of red campion. Stitchwort shoots can occasionally be seen in woodland, though they do not seem to crop up (or be noticed) on the ordinary path verges where they are more common later in the spring. Often (though not always) near houses, mats of the silver-tinged "argentatum" variety of yellow archangel can be seen, as (as mentioned above) can the foliage of the garden escapee periwinkle carpeting patches of woodland or shady banks.

On verges young stinging nettles shoots, some of which have been around since November, are joined by many new ones, though some may be white deadnettles, which look very similar when not in flower. Near habitation you can see the warty leaves of alkanet, or the somewhat similar ones of white comfrey or creeping comfrey, which are also occasionally found.

Other verge shoots include garlic mustard, wood avens (aka herb bennet), nipplewort, forget-me-not, common mallow and greater celandine (not to be confused with lesser celandine, to which it is unrelated). Also small new dock leaves, joining somewhat larger ones that sprouted earlier in the winter. Just occasionally you see new ground elder shoots.

Though some have been around all winter, there is definitely an increase in the saw-toothed leaves of dandelions on verges and in grassy places. Some catsear and hawkbit leaves may also be evident, though they are not very conspicuous. Otherwise in grassland and on grassy verges there are the leaves of cranesbill, clover, daisy, cinquefoil, ribwort plantain, yarrow, and creeping and meadow buttercup, while on downland a distinctive shoot is that of salad burnet.

You may also see the leaves of primroses, but don't confuse them with those of teasel, which look quite similar and are usually found in barer places. Teasel is a biennial - that is, it grows from seed one year, flowers the next and then dies - and the same is true of ragwort, whose leaves you sometimes see in rough grassland, but which seems to be nothing like as common as it is when flowering in summer. Back on barer ground you can find the warty leaves of bristly oxtongue, again arranged in a rosette

In boggy areas later in the February the distinctive heart-shaped leaves of marsh marigold start to appear, and in milder years the foliage of the very poisonous hemlock water dropwort can be seen on the edge of rivers. Watercress is evident in shallow chalk streams, while the poisonous fool's watercress has almost identical foliage and occurs both in flowing water and still ditches and ponds.

You can also see the straight new leaves of yellow flag iris growing out of ponds and other shallow water: it is usually this you see rather than new growth on reeds, though some green shoots of the latter do also appear out of the brown wastes of last year's leaves during February. A plant that sometimes looks like a water plant starting to grow, since it often appears in ditches, is great willowherb: it is also found on ordinary verges and arable edges.

By the sea (and inland in places near the sea) the foliage of alexanders is abundant (in 2016 some even flowered) and you can see the plants of silver ragwort, rock samphire, sea beet, stonecrop, tree mallow, sea mayweed, sea heath, hottentot fig, aster (the garden escapee version) and buckshorn plantain. Red valerian plants grow both on shingle beaches and out of garden walls inland.

New shoots of yellow-horned poppy may also be evident on shingle beaches, while rock sea-lavender grows on chalk cliff faces. On the coast around Folkestone and Dover note the plants of wild cabbage (a Roman import), and on salt marshes, the banks of tidal rivers, and other bare ground by the sea, the grey leaves of sea purslane.

In arable fields, the grass-like new shoots of wheat add a welcome splash of green to the landscape (they remain as short as they were back in October: it is not until March that they start to grow). The cabbage-like leaves you see in some fields are the young shoots of oilseed rape: note their location if you like seeing this crop in flower in the April.

Arable weeds include the frizzy leaves of mayweed and the tiny thistle-like rosettes of prickly sow thistle. There may also be the big rosettes of spear thistle in this habitat, as well as in rough grass and on wasteground.

Also found in arable fields, as well as bare spots generally, are the leaves of groundsel, shepherd's purse, field speedwell and very occasionally wintercress, while urban corners, as well as the edges of paths and roads, sometimes have mats of chickweed. The leaves of hairy bittercress also appear on wasteground and in urban corners, and you see the rosettes of smooth sow thistle and (sometimes) Canadian fleabane there.

Growing out of garden walls you can see ivy-leaved toadflax and Mexican fleabane leaves (as well as red valerian as mentioned above), and on rail tracks (and sometimes other bare ground in urban areas) or at the top of shingle beaches, there are Oxford ragwort plants.

More February pages:

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