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February flowers

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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 seems 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 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 are going over as the month ends, the first poignant die-back of the year.

This is also the peak time for crocuses. Almost always found in parks and gardens rather than in the wild, they pop out of the ground in the last week of January (or as early as mid January some years) and grow frantically upwards. They are usually starting to flower at the beginning of February and then last for the rest of the month. When a sunny day tempts them to open into delicate stars, 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 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 also 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, annual mercury and groundsel. All of these can be found on the edges of arable fields (or, in the case of chickweed, in pasture), in bare places on road verges, and also as urban weeds, a location where they may be joined by hairy bittercress.

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 a few purple flowers. In churchyards, and sometimes in wilder spots, you occasionally find aconites - yellow flowers with a ruff of green leaves. On village verges you can still see some winter heliotrope - a rather invasive plant with large rounded leaves and stalks of strange pink flowers. Green-flowered stinking hellebore, which usually seems to be a garden escapee, could in theory turn up wild in the woods on lime soils. In mild years summer snowflake (which looks a bit like an oversized snowdrop) may appear at the end of the month.

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 (also known as goosegrass) 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 also 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 appear 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. Also towards the end of the month you find the leaves of ramsons (aka wild garlic), which have a strong garlic smell.

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. Often (though not always) near houses, mats of the silver-tinged "argentatum" variety of yellow archangel can be seen, as 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 new ones (though some of these may be the shoots of white deadnettles, which are also growing at this time). Otherwise you can see the large warty leaves of alkanet (which is similar to that of white comfrey or creeping comfrey, which are also occasionally found), along with shoots of garlic mustard, wood avens (aka herb bennet), nipplewort, forget-me-not, stitchwort, common mallow and greater celandine (not to be confused with lesser celandine, to which it is unrelated). Some relatively small new dock leaves are also to be seen, while ground elder shoots tend to appear towards the end of the month or in early March, though some may have poked above ground earlier in the winter.

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. Otherwise in grassland there are the leaves of various plants that have been there all winter, including cranesbill, clover, daisy, cinquefoil, ribwort plantain, yarrow, creeping and meadow buttercup, and (on downland) salad burnet. The much larger foliage of French cranesbill seem to renew itself on verges during the month.

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. You can also see new reed shoots growing during the month in ponds and marshes - though some may in fact be yellow flag iris. 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 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, common scurvygrass, 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 leaves of sea lavender. The grey foliage of sea purslane also grows in salt marshes, and can sometimes be seen at the base of cliffs or other rough spots on seafronts.

In arable fields, winter crops such as 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. On arable fields you can see 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.

Found in bare spots generally, including arable fields, are the leaves of groundsel, shepherd's purse, field speedwell, smooth sow thistle 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 sometimes see the rosettes of Canadian fleabane there. Growing out of garden walls you can see ivy-leaved toadflax leaves, and on rail tracks (and sometimes other bare ground) in urban areas, or at the top of shingle beaches, there are Oxford ragwort plants.

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