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January flowers

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Picture: snowdrops. Click here for more January flower and shoots photos.

Though they are very tentative, the keen-eyed can see signs of spring in January as the plants of wildflowers start to grow and establish their territories. Perhaps the most obvious are the shoots of daffodils, which appear ramrod-straight out of the ground right at the start of the month (or even from late December) in milder winters, or not till mid month in colder years.

Look a bit closer at a countryside path verge or woodland floor and you can see a lot of other shoots springing up (for some photos, click here). These include cow parsley (which really looks like parsley at this time of year), garlic mustard, wood avens and cleavers (also known as goosegrass). Some of these have been there since as early as October, but further new shoots of all these plants can appear in January.

There are also new dandelion and stinging nettle shoots pushing up through the leaf litter, again joining ones that have been there since the autumn. Some of the new nettle shoots may be white deadnettles - if not flowering they look almost identical to stinging nettles. (Red deadnettle is also not impossible: see The first flowers below.)

Joining these are the tiny new leaves of lesser celandine: they can appear as early as mid December but really pick up momentum in January, when they appear everywhere on verges and in woodland. In the same places note the waxy curved leaves of cuckoo pint, which appear from mid month onwards in milder years, though in others not till February.

Another shoot you may see in woodland in milder years is dog's mercury, though most years they are not apparent till late February or March. In addition red campion leaves may be visible, as well as the tiny new shoots of that quintessential April-May flower stitchwort. At the very end of the month the grass-like leaves of bluebells appear - very tiny and inconspicuous at this point. (This happened from mid month in 2018 and 2021 and even earlier in 2016: see If it snows below). You can also see woodruff in woodland, foxglove leaves in clearings (and also sometimes on verges), and the "argentatum" variety of yellow archangel on shady verges and woodland edges. Periwinkle leaves sometimes carpet sections of woodland or shady verge, usually, but not always, near houses.

In the second half of January crocuses push up their shoots - mainly in parks and gardens, but the native pink variety does sometimes crop up in the wild. Some were in evidence as early as mid month in 2007, 2008, 2015, 2018, 2019 and 2020, but in other years (eg in 2009, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2021) they did not appear until the fourth week. In snowy January 2010 none appeared at all, and the same was true in January 2017. Once the shoots have fully grown, their flowers may open on a mild or sunny day.

Other flower leaves one sees have flowered last year and will last throughout the winter to do so again in the spring. In grassland these include buttercups - very common - as well as cranesbills, cinquefoil, ribwort plantain, yarrow, clover, daisies and (on downland) salad burnet. On verges perennials include green alkanet, which continues to add more new leaves to the ones that emerged from October to December. You also see mallow leaves and those of forget-me-nots (the garden variety, which is a kind of wood forget-me-not, and usually found near habitation), as well as creeping (and more rarely white) comfrey.

Very occasionally you may also come across greater celandine (not to be confused with lesser celandine, to which it is unrelated), while the distinctively-shaped leaves of nipplewort (an annual) are fairly common once you get your eye in. Towards the end of the month you may just see leaves of primroses, but don't confuse them with those of teasel, which look quite similar and is 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

You can see new dock leaves quite widely, and some herb robert leaves seem to cling on here and there (it is hard to tell if these are survivors from last year or new growth, but they are much less common than they were in the autumn). Just occasionally you come across new ground elder leaves. You see the big rosettes of spear thistle (another biennial) in rough grass and on wasteground, and they also crop up in fallow arable fields sometimes. Prickly sow thistle rosettes can be found in similar locations, often small, but sometimes quite large.

Otherwise in bare arable fields there are mayweed plants, while new shoots of winter wheat bring a welcome green twinge to the landscape (they remain as short as they were back in October: it is not until the spring that they shoot up). If you see a low cabbage-like crop, it is almost certainly oilseed rape: make a note of the location and come back in April to see a glorious sea of yellow flowers.

Groundsel and field speedwell are also found in bare arable fields as well as on wasteground or in odd urban corners, while urban verges, as well as the edges of paths and roads, sometimes have big mats of chickweed, as well as the plants or new rosettes of smooth sow thistle. In mild winters the leaves of hairy bittercress may appear on wasteground by roadsides and wintercress rosettes are occasionally seen as an urban weed or on arable fields. Growing out of walls you can still see ivy-leaved toadflax leaves, and on rail tracks in urban areas or at the top of shingle beaches Oxford ragwort plants.

By rivers or in ditches you may just see hemlock water dropwort leaves (very poisonous!) growing in a very mild January, though February or even March is a more normal time from them to appear. By the sea you can see the luxuriant foliage of alexanders (it was introduced to this country by the Romans as a winter herb) and the plants of silver ragwort, rock sea-lavender, rock samphire, sea beet, red valerian, tree mallow, stonecrop, sea mayweed, common scurvygrass, hottentot fig, aster (the garden escapee version) and buckshorn plantain. On the coast around Folkestone and Dover note the plants of wild cabbage (another Roman import), and on salt marshes the leaves of sea lavender and the grey foliage of sea purslane.

If it snows

Very cold weather may delay the appearance of some new shoots, but snow - at least a few days of it - has surprisingly little impact. Anything that appears out of the ground at this time of year has evolved to deal with it.

Equally, though a very mild winter may persuade some shoots to come out earlier, they usually seem to hedge their bets. An example was January 2016, which followed the warmest December on record. While some daffodils, primroses and snowdrops were already flowering at the end of December that year, the bulk of them were not, and most daffodil shoots waited till early January to appear. Likewise though bluebell, cuckoo pint and dog's mercury plants in a few places seemed almost full grown at the end of December 2015, most appeared as normal during January or even towards its end.

A few snowdrops were also seen in December 2020, brought on by two mild weeks in the middle of the month. But the rest were if anything a bit reluctant to flower even at the end of January 2021, as is mentioned below.

The first flowers

Some plants actually flower in January. The main one, of course, is the snowdrop which hangs its head humbly in the winter cold. The first ones can appear in sheltered locations quite early in the month - I saw my first one in 2020 near Beaconsfield on New Year's Day and on 5 January in Thursley near Haslemere in 2019 - and as is described in the paragraph above, you occasionally even see them in December. The second week of January is a more usual time for a first sighting, however.

It is not the end of the month that snowdrops start to come out in force, though, and sometimes not even then: in the cold winter of 2010 most were still just buds by that point, while in 2017 most had not even reached that stage. Only a third were in flower by the end of January 2011, 2013 and 2019, and this was also true in 2021 despite the early start mentioned above. In 2020 about two thirds were in flower by this point.

Crocuses may also flower in the second half of January - see the section on plant shoots above for more details of this - and on roadside verges (usually in or near a village) you may see winter heliotrope - an invasive plant with large circular leaves which produces not unattractive pink and white flowers (though sometimes not many of them - hardly any in January 2021, for some reason). In gardens, parks and churchyards there are sometimes get vibrant displays of aconites - a yellow flower with a distinctive ruff of leaves. Periwinkle, a spreading plant found in semi-wild situations, may also put out one or two of its purple blooms.

In warmer years there may be a few daisies in lawns (they do not come out in force until March or April, however) and you might see the occasional red deadnettle (usually on an arable verge or similar bare ground). In 2013, 2019, 2020 and 2021 there were also some white deadnettles. The very occasional dandelion or primrose or daffodil is just about possible in very mild years.

On urban waysides - and sometimes as arable weeds - groundsel, shepherd's purse and annual mercury may flower in January, and field speedwell, chickweed and smooth sow thistle may try to do so, though usually any blooms that appear remain closed. In 2020 hairy bittercress flowered in a tentative way in urban settings; it also made some attempts to do so in early January 2021 after a mild December, but soon gave up in the face of relentlessly grey and cold weather.

More January pages:

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