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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, 2013 and 2022), 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 beige in colour. 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.

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. Both of these can flower as early as the second week (2020) or mid month (2004, 2008 and 2022), but a more normal time is the last week of February (2014 and 2019) or the start of March (2012, 2015, 2017 and 2021).

All this is very weather-sensitive, and unexpected cold can bring it to a halt. In 2018, for example, some cherry plums were starting at the end of February when a week of Siberian cold and snow hit. Likewise in 2005 flowering in mid February was interrupted by cold northerly winds. In both years there was no further progress on flowering until mid March,. This was also when cherry plum came out in 2006, 2009 and 2011, while in cold 2010 there was no blossom till late March. In 2013 flowering started in early March but was then halted by bitterly cold east winds until the first week of April. 2016 was the opposite, in that a very mid December caused some cherry plums to be out from mid January with blossoming in full swing at the start of February. Flowering was very staggered that year and lasted in places into early March.

Otherwise, 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.

An inconspicuous bit of tree flowering is the 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 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. There can be budburst (the underlying colour of the male catkin 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 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.

On other 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, 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 (as happened in 2020 and 2021).

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 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 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 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.

Berries are mostly gone now, though ivy ones are generally at their best (black with a black cap) in the first half the month. This varies from bush to bush and place to place, however, and some do not ripen till early March and 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, sloes (usually black and shrivelled) and holly berries. Some white snowberries may be visible, but they are 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 - presumably in locations inaccessible to their avian consumers.

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 and 2020 it was starting to flower at this time, and in 2008 and 2011 it came into full flower as early as mid February. 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 or streets, which has sparse pink blossom: it is generally fading at this time of year, and so will most likely be seen early in February.

There is also a pink-flowering garden shrub - viburnum farreri - which 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 getting scarce and is mostly all gone: in a few places it may last into March, however.

Note also the slow 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 are 3-4cm high. 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: these 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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