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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 establish their territories for the season ahead. 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. Some of these have been there since as early as September, 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 others that have been there since the autumn. Some of the new nettle shoots may be white deadnettles - if not flowering they look very similar - or red deadnettles. You also get some catsear/hawkbit shoots - superficially a bit similar to dandelions - but they are not very conspicuous at this time of year.

Joining these on bare verges and woodland floors are the tiny heart-shaped leaves of lesser celandine: they can appear as early as the first week of December but really pick up momentum in January, when they appear everywhere on verges and in woodland, an exciting harbinger of the spring to come. In the same habitats note the waxy curved leaves of cuckoo pint, which can be seen in very isolated cases even early in January, are a bit more common from from mid month onwards, but usually do not emerge en masse until early 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. More rarely, 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 on verges, and the "argentatum" variety of yellow archangel on shady verges and woodland edges. Periwinkle leaves can 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. Usually they start to appear in the fourth week, but in mild years it can happen as early as mid month, while in very cold winters it does not happen until February. Once the shoots have fully grown, their flowers may open on a mild or sunny day.

Other leaves one sees are from plants that have flowered last year and last throughout the winter to do so again in the spring (while also sometimes seeding anew on bare ground). In grassland or on grassy verges these include buttercups - very common - as well as cranesbills, cinquefoil, ribwort plantain, yarrow, clover and daisy. On downland a distinctive shoot is that of salad burnet.

On verges near habitation green alkanets are a mix of old leaves dying away and new ones appearing (the "green" in the name, meaning evergreen, refers to this ability to replace its foliage straightaway). Leaves of forget-me-nots (the garden variety, which is a kind of wood forget-me-not) may sometimes be seen, often though not always near habitation, and growing out of garden walls you can see the foliage of ivy-leaved toadflax, Mexican fleabane and red valerian. The plants of creeping (and more rarely white) comfrey - both of which might just be confused with foxglove - are also usually found near gardens.

Otherwise on path and track edges you occasionally come across the leaves of common mallow and greater celandine (not to be confused with lesser celandine, to which it is unrelated), while the distinctively-shaped leaves of nipplewort 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 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, arranged in a rosette.

You can see small new dock leaves quite widely, while some mature ones from last year may just be clinging on in places. Likewise in January some new herb robert shoots join survivors from the autumn. Just occasionally you also 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. 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 an arable field covered in cabbage-like leaves, it is quite likely to be oilseed rape: make a note of the location and come back in April to see a glorious sea of yellow flowers. However another possibility is the rather similar stubble turnip, which is a winter crop grown to regenerate the soil and for sheep to eat (if you see them in the act, then this identification is certain).

Groundsel and field speedwell are also found in arable fields as well as on wasteground and in odd urban corners, while urban verges, as well as the edges of paths and roads, and occasionally pasture fields, sometimes have big mats of chickweed leaves.

Note also the plants or new rosettes of smooth sow thistle or - occasionally - Canadian fleabane, both mostly seen in urban contexts. 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. You may just spot some Oxford ragwort plants on rail lines, particularly just outside Central London terminuses.

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. In chalk streams you can see watercress leaves, while the poisonous fools' watercress has almost identical foliage and occurs in both flowing water and still ditches and ponds.

Towards the end of the month you may start to see the straight green shoots of yellow flag iris growing up out of calm pond or river water. A plant that may look like a water plant starting to grow, since it often appears in ditches, is great willowherb, also found on ordinary verges and arable edges.

By the sea you can see the luxuriant foliage of alexanders (introduced to this country by the Romans as a winter vegetable), along with the plants of silver ragwort, rock samphire, sea beet, red valerian, tree mallow, stonecrop, sea mayweed, sea heath, hottentot fig, aster (the garden escapee version) and buckshorn plantain.

New shoots of yellow-horned poppy may also be evident on shingle beaches, while rock sea-lavender grows on chalk cliff faces. In addition note the plants of wild cabbage (another Roman import) on the shores around Folkestone and Dover, and the grey foliage of sea purslane in saltmarshes, on the banks of tidal rivers, and on other bits of bare ground by the sea.

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. You may just see one right at the start of the month (occasionally even in December), but the second week of January is a more usual time for a first sighting and it is not until the end of the month (or February in colder winters) that they come out in force.

Crocuses can 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 and 2024, for some reason). In gardens, parks and churchyards there are sometimes vibrant displays of aconites - a yellow flower with a distinctive ruff of leaves.

In warmer years there may be a few daisies in mown grass (they do not come out in force until late February or March, however), and most years you see a few tentative white or red deadnettles on verges. The very occasional dandelion (usually almost stalkless), primrose, lesser celandine or daffodil is possible in mild years or sheltered spots.

Periwinkle, a spreading plant sometimes found in semi-wild situations, though more often in gardens, may also put out one or two of its purple blooms, and in late January you can have the surprising sight of a green-flowered stinking hellebore, which normally flowers from February onwards and which usually seems to be a garden escapee, though could in theory turn up wild in the woods on lime soils.

On urban waysides - and sometimes as arable weeds - groundsel, shepherd's purse and annual mercury may flower in January, and field speedwell, chickweed, hairy bittercress and smooth sow thistle may try to do so, though usually any blooms that appear remain closed. Very occasionally some scentless mayweed flowers survive in arable fields.

More January pages:

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