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February trees and shrubs

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Picture: hazel catkins. Click here for more February tree and shrub photos.

The tree flowering sequence gets going February, if it has not done so in late January. Hazel catkins can appear on isolated trees even early in January, but the main wave is not usually until the end of that month (as in 2012, 2014, 2015, 2018, 2019 and 2021) or early February (2009, 2011 and 2013), while in 2010, 2016, 2017 and 2020 it was not until mid February. Once out, these "lambs tails" bring a welcome splash of yellow to the countryside, lasting four to five weeks. The tree flowers at this time of year to allow its pollen to spread through the air while there are no leaves on the trees. If you look closely you can also see the tiny red female flowers in the centre of the leaf buds - these will later become the hazelnuts.

Next in the sequence are alder catkins - easily recognisable because they are the only catkins to appear on trees bearing cones. The buds of the catkins have been on the tree all winter, 2-3cm long and either green or pinkish in colour. They now extend into long tassels of yellow flecked with brown. The timing of this varies quite a bit from tree to tree and you may see it in places from mid month. But it is often not till the last week that it happens en masse - or not until the first week of March in cold 2010, 2013 and 2018.

Sometimes cherry plum blossom also appears in February. There is a cultivated pink-flowered version (actually often white-flowered if you look closely, but with red-brown foliage that makes its flowers appear pink) which is seen in parks and suburban streets, and a wild white-flowered shrub. In 2020 some was out in the first week and cherry plums flowered quite widely in the second week. In 2004 and 2008 it flowered from mid month and in 2014 and 2019 in the fourth week. In 2005 it started in mid February but was brought to a halt by cold north winds in the third week and did not resume till mid March. In 2012, 2017 and 2021 it appeared at the start of March, in 2015 at the end of the first week of March and in 2006, 2009, 2011 in mid March. In 2018 some was starting at the end of February when a week of Siberian cold and snow hit and the blossom then did not appear till mid March. In 2010 there was none till late March, and in 2013 flowering started in early March but was then halted by bitterly cold east winds until the first week of April. 2016 was a very exceptional year in that cherry plum blossom started from mid January due to a very mild December and was in full swing at the start of February. Flowering was very staggered that year and lasted in places into early March.

Once out, cherry plum blossom lasts around three weeks, though it can seem as if the plant is shedding some its flowers almost as soon as they appear. It is not necessarily the wind that is to blame for this: wood pigeons and other birds also try to eat the blossom (or buds), causing them to fall to the ground.

On other trees buds become more prominent, turning their crisp winter outlines somewhat fuzzier. This shows that they are ready to put out new leaves or flowers, but this does not happen yet. There can be budburst (the underlying colour of the flower or foliage showing through the bud) on hornbeam later in the month (in 2014 this happened quite widely from early in February) and sycamore may have green oval buds. In addition weeping willow may start to put forward both leaves and catkins at the very end of the month, adding a yellowy-green tinge to the tree when seen from a distance. At the same time you may see the start of the white (later yellow) blobs that are the male catkins of goat willow or sallow (commonly referred to as "pussy willows"). Red maple (a street tree) also sometimes starts to put out its frizzy red flowers.

On some trees last autumn's seeds are still in evidence. Cones remaining on alder are mentioned above. In addition ash trees still have some keys (seed bunches): some have fallen to the ground in January, and during February many of the rest fall, but some may remain into March. The dark, nobbly growths that can be seen hanging down on some ashes when the seeds fall off are cauliflower galls, made by an insect. One can also see a few winged seeds hanging from the twigs of lime. Some of last autumn's (open) nut cases are still on beech trees and London plane retains its spherical seed cases. There may just be a few surviving seeds on sycamore or field maple.

Notice too the catkins buds (which have been there all winter) waiting to open on birch: it may also still have desiccated seed cylinders left over from last year, though most have fallen by now. On a few oak or beech trees (saplings or lower branches), as well beech hedges in gardens or parks, there can still be some dead foliage left over from last autumn.

Some shrubs add foliage

While trees are still bare, some shrubs are already adding foliage. For example, elder can put out tiny new leaves as early as January (though this is very variable from year to year and plant to plant, with hardly any seen in some years), and during February they may grow very slowly if the weather is mild. Honeysuckle may have quite a lot of leaves if in suburban areas, or just small clusters of new leaves if in woodland: but in either case there is usually further foliage growth during the month. Buddleia has small new leaves, but they have been there since October and do not usually grow noticeably this month, unless the weather is very mild (as happened in 2020 and 2021).

Brambles have the beginning of new leaf shoots sticking at an angle out of their spiny stems, but they do not open yet. On some brambles, particularly ones in exposed positions, the foliage from the previous year is almost entirely gone, with just a few maroon leaves left: those in woodland or on sheltered verges still keep a fair number of green leaves, however. Garden privet keeps some foliage all winter, as to a lesser extent does wild privet, though some smaller wild privets go completely bare. As the month goes on, both can develop tiny new leaf buds. (Don't confuse these with the small leaves you may see on a garden privet that has been trimmed: these are growth that started in the autumn and stopped when winter started.)

In milder years a few hawthorns may also be putting out some tentative new foliage at the end of the month, though this tends to be just a few isolated examples and it is only younger plants that do this (perhaps genetically programmed to benefit from a little photosynthesis before the tree canopy comes into leaf and blocks their light). Occasionally you see budburst on blackthorn (the white of the blossom to come showing through the bud) or even actual flowering. Blackthorn flowers look almost identical to cherry plum ones: the way to tell them apart is that blackthorn has sharp "thorns" (actually dormant side shoots) sticking out at right angles from its twigs, and also that the sepals (tiny green leaves underpinning the flower) are folded back on cherry plum but not on blackthorn. Roses may also produce some new leaf shoots, but these tend to be garden escapees rather then the wild dog rose. Wayfaring tree (a shrub often found on downland) can produce flower buds with a leaf bud either side in the second half of the month.

Berries are mostly gone now. If ivy berries have not already disappeared, they are quickly eaten once they ripen to black, though some may linger into March. Blackbirds, thrushes and wood pigeons are particularly fond of them, and the latter flying up in alarm as you pass an ivy bush is the best indicator of when the berries are ripe. Dog rose bushes may also still have some hips on them and wild privet some black berries, and you can see very occasional haws, sloes (usually black and shrivelled) and holly berries. Early in the month a few white snowberries may be visible, but they are rotting away by now, and the orange berries you still see on stinking iris (a flowering plant rather than a shrub) are also past their best. Though most of them were consumed by birds in December a few cotoneaster or firethorn (aka pyracantha) berries may survive - presumably in locations inaccessible to their avian consumers.

In at least two years - 2008 and 2011 - forsythia has burst into flower in mid February. This wonderful shrub, mainly found in gardens but also naturalised in some places, is mentioned here because its riot of yellow flowers really cheers up the early spring gloom. Its appearance in 2008 could be attributed to mild weather, but its flowering in 2011 is more of a mystery: late February was too cold that year for cherry blossom, but not for forsythia. In 2020, a mild winter, it was partly in flower in the last week of the month and in 2014 just starting to appear in the last few days, while 2017, 2019 and 2021 saw budburst (the yellow of the flowers showing through the bud casing) at this time. In 2016 a very few started to flower at the beginning of January due to December having been very mild, but they soon thought better of it and did not resume until March.

Forsythia is not to be confused with the much less luxuriant winter jasmine, which has yellow flowers on bare stalks and flowers in gardens all winter: many have gone over by now but some can last into February or even March. Likewise, don't confuse cherry plum blossom with winter flowering cherry, again sometimes seen in gardens, which has sparse pink blossom: it is generally fading at this time of year, and so will most likely be seen early in February.

Another garden shrub worth mentioning at this time of year is viburnum, which keeps some white flowers all winter. And still in gardens, rosemary can sometimes produce blue flowers in February, though more normally this is delayed till as late as April.

Other tree and shrub activity in February includes inconspicuous flowers (tiny golden balls) on male yew trees, which in March, or sometimes at the end of February, will produce clouds of pollen when touched (this is synchronised over wide areas, so all the yews in a particular region do this at once). You may also see what look like clusters of unfolding needles on yew, but these are in fact a gall parasitising the plant. Scattered gorse flowers continue to be seen. Hedgerows on chalk soils may still be draped with some wisps of old man's beard (the seeds of traveller's joy) early in the month, though it is getting scarce and it is mostly all gone by mid month: in a few places it may last into March, however.

Note also the slow lengthening of the candle-like flower buds on cherry laurel. It is these that distinguish cherry laurel from the otherwise similar looking rhododendron, which has more conventional oval buds in the centre of its leaves: the latter look like flower buds, but actually seem to produce new foliage at this time of year. (In 2016 cherry laurel flower spikes were full grown and sometimes even flowering in early January, due to a very mild December, and this continued in places throughout February.)

More February pages:


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