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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 or early February. 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. They appear at this time of year to allow their 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, which to avoid self-pollination tend to come out before or after the tree has produced its catkins: 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, 3-4cm long, and can be green-ish, beige, brown or maroon. They now extend into long tassels of yellow flecked with brown (often looking gold from a distance). 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, as well as (in places) 2021 and 2023.

Sometimes cherry plum blossom also comes out in February. The wild plant here is a white-flowered hedgerow shrub, but there is also a pink-flowered tree (actually often white-flowered if you look closely, but with red-brown foliage that makes its flowers appear pink) which is found in gardens, parks and suburban streets. For both types the flowering time is very variable from year to year and depends on the weather.

It can start as early as the second week (2020 and 2024) or mid month (2004, 2008, 2022), but a more normal time is the last week of February (2014 and 2019) or the first week of March (2012, 2015, 2017 and 2021). Late years include 2006, 2009 and 2011, when flowering did not start till mid March, and 2010, when it did not start until late March.

Sometimes flowering starts and is then brought to a halt by cold weather: the tree just waits patiently for this to finish and then resumes flowering. This happened in 2023, when blossom started to appear in places in mid February but mostly did not get going till the end of the month, with some still only part out as late as mid March; also in 2005 and 2018, when tentative flowering in the third week of February was interrupted by cold weather and did not resume until mid March.

In 2013 flowering started in early March but was then halted by bitterly cold east winds until the first week of April. By contrast, in 2016 a very mild December caused some cherry plums to be out from mid January, with many in full bloom at the start of February, but others lasting into early March.

Once out, cherry plum blossom lasts two to 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.

An inconspicuous bit of tree flowering this month is the tiny golden balls on male yew trees, which for a short period in March, or sometimes at the end of February, produce clouds of pollen when touched (this can be synchronised over wide areas, so all the yews in a particular region do it 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.

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. For example, there can be budburst (the underlying colour of the male catkin or foliage showing through the bud) on hornbeam from quite early in the month and sycamore may have green oval buds.

In addition from mid month, though sometimes earlier, weeping willow may start to put forward both leaves and catkins, adding a yellowy-green tinge to the tree when seen from a distance, and you may also see the start of the grey or white blobs that will be 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 from the third week or so.

Elsewhere, 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 may fall, but equally some (or quite a lot) 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, while 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 (eg in 2020, 2021 and 2024).

Brambles have new leaf buds sticking at an angle out of their spiny stems, but they do not open yet: they may start to turn green from mid month onwards in a few places however. 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 on downland some wild privets go completely bare. As the month goes on, both species can develop tiny new leaf buds, and at the end of the month they may be forming tiny closed leaf clusters. (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.)

Another evergreen shrub, box, can have some flowers starting at the end of the month. It is more common in garden hedges than in the wild, but is abundant on the western slopes of Box Hill.

In milder years a few hawthorns may also be putting out some tentative new foliage in the second half 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). Roses may also produce some new leaf shoots: sometimes this happens on the wild dog rose, but otherwise is on garden escapees.

Occasionally you see also 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.

The last of the berries

Berries are mostly gone now, though ivy ones are generally at their best (black with a black cap) in the first half of the month. This varies from bush to bush and place to place, however, and some do not ripen till early March, while others fail to do so at all. Once they are ripe, they are quickly eaten by blackbirds, thrushes and wood pigeons, for whom they are an important food source at this difficult stage of the winter. Wood pigeons flying up in alarm as you pass an ivy bush are in fact the best indicator of when the berries are ripe, though be careful, as they do sometimes eat them before they are fully mature.

Dog rose bushes may also still have some hips on them and wild privet a few black berries, and you can see very occasional haws (often, though not always rather rotten), sloes (usually black and shrivelled) and holly berries.

Some white snowberries may be visible, but they are mostly rotting away by now, and the pods of berry-like red-orange seeds 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 - possibly in locations inaccessible to their avian consumers.

Other flowering shrubs

In a hopeful sign of spring, forsythia, a garden shrub that is also naturalised in some places, often starts to prepare to flower at the end of February, though it does not usually burst into its characteristic riot of yellow flowers until March. Typically - as in 2017, 2019, 2021 and 2022 - all you see is budburst (the yellow of the flowers starting to show through the buds), but in 2014, 2020 and 2024 they were starting to flower at the end of the month, and in 2023 as early as the second week - though in that year cold weather then kept flowering very tentative until mid March. In 2008 and 2011 forsythia came into full flower as early as mid February, while 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: most of its flowers have gone over by now but some can last until late February or even March. Likewise, don't confuse cherry plum blossom with winter flowering cherry, again sometimes seen in gardens or streets, which also has pink blossom: it is generally on the way out even early in February, but some can survive till the end of the month or even into early March.

There is also a pink-flowering garden shrub - viburnum farreri - which due to its colour could be confused at a casual glance with winter flowering cherry. It is generally only in flower in the first half of the month, however. The more common white-flowered viburnum continues to have some flowers, as it does 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.

Back in the wild, scattered gorse flowers continue to be seen (some bushes may have quite a lot of flowers by now, while others have none). Hedgerows on chalk soils may still be draped with some wisps of old man's beard (the seeds of traveller's joy), though it is mostly all gone by now: in a few places it can last into March, however.

Note also the slowly lengthening of the candle-like flower spikes on cherry laurel. At first these are partly coated in white sheaths. but as the month goes on these may start to fall away leaving green spherical buds on lateral stalks. By the end of the month the spikes can be 3-4cm high. (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.)

It is these spikes that distinguish cherry laurel from the otherwise similar looking rhododendron, which has more conventional oval buds in the centre of its leaves: these look like flower buds, but actually seem to produce new foliage at this time of year.

More February pages:

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