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January trees and shrubs

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Picture: an oak tree in winter. Click here for more January tree and shrub photos.

January can see the start of the tree flowering season, with the lengthening of short hazel catkin buds into long yellow "lambs tails". The reason they come out so early is to allow their pollen to spread through the air while there are no leaves on the trees to impede them. You see fully extended catkins on occasional trees right from the start of the month, but the main wave is not until the fourth week of January or the first half of February (see February trees). The pollen can cause the first symptoms of hayfever - sneezing, sniffling and eye itching.

Look also for the very tiny red female flowers on hazel (the catkins being the male ones), which appear out of the leaf buds and will eventually become the nuts. To prevent self pollination these presumably try to avoid coming out at the same time as pollen is released on their own tree. But beyond this they seem to be quite random in their timing, sometimes coming out before their own catkins and sometimes after.

Alder has catkin buds along with last year's cones: it is the only tree that has both, making it easy to identify. The catkin buds are green-ish, beige, brown or maroon and 3-4cm long. Birch also has catkin buds, brown and 1 to 3cm long, and you may be able to see some dried seed cylinders left over from last year.

Beech twigs can still sport empty nut cases, and a few winged seeds - now desiccated - can cling to lime trees. A very few sycamores, field maples, Norway maples and hornbeams may still also retain some seeds, while London plane has brown spherical seed cases.

Ash trees have some seeds too, looking like bunches of keys, and quite easy at a casual glance to confuse with sycamore seeds. They continue to fall as the month goes on, though this is very variable from tree to tree, with some retaining lots and some going nearly bare. The nobbly things hanging down from the twigs that can be seen when the seeds fall off are cauliflower galls, made by an insect.

You can also still see some dead oak and beech leaves still on saplings or lower branches. Beech hedges that have been trimmed in the past year keep dead foliage all winter. On yew trees what look like clusters of unfolding needles are in fact a gall parasitising the plant. Look closely on male yews and you can see spherical green flower buds, which may start to turn orange as the month goes on.

Crack willow twigs can shine bright orange in sunshine, while the fronds of weeping willows are yellowy and the twigs of dogwood a striking maroon colour. Other trees have leaf buds ready for action - black for ash, sticky brown for horse chestnut. If the weather is mild you may see tiny green leaf buds appearing on sycamore.

Shrub foliage and flowers

Some shrubs hold on to green leaves all winter. Garden privet is a good example. Early in January it may still be shedding leaves, with some yellow or maroon in colour, but this largely ceases by late in the month. On trimmed hedges there are also some small new leaves among the full-sized ones, which have been there since autumn but do not grow any bigger over the winter. Towards the end of the month you may just see tiny green buds appear, the start of the new season's leaf growth.

Wild privet goes thinner than its garden cousin but usually retains some foliage (an exception being downland, where it goes entirely bare). Again, there can still be some yellowing in early January but it usually has finished by later in the month.

Buddleia never goes entirely bare, with new leaf shoots appearing as early as the start of October. The remains of last year's foliage then mostly fall in November and early December, leaving the plant down to just the new shoots, though it is just possible you might see some of the old leaves still clinging on in early January.

Bramble foliage has usually stopped yellowing in January, though in some years there are a few yellow or even reddish leaves into the first half of the month. In woodland or on reasonably sheltered verges the remaining leaves remain green, with the plant retaining a reasonable amount of foliage all winter. In open fields, however, they can go almost entirely bare, with the few remaining leaves coloured maroon. As in December, if you look closely you may see small white side shoots on the stems that will turn into new foliage in March.

Other shrubs are already putting out new leaves. Honeysuckle goes bare in woodland in autumn, though garden varieties can retain quite a bit of foliage. As early as December (or even November) the woodland ones then put out small new leaves, with others following in January. These remain very small, but may grow a bit later in the month in milder winters, when garden ones may also add new foliage. Some elders can also put out maroon buds and then tiny new leaf shoots (or even leaves) in January, but these grow very slowly, if at all.

Cherry laurel, which has thick glossy evergreen leaves and so is often mistaken for rhododendron, puts out green oval buds at the base of its leaf stalks in early January, if it has not already done so in late December, and around the middle of the month these start to break open and grow into its flower spikes. Usually they don't get much beyond 1cm tall by the month's end, though sometimes they may push a bit higher. (In the winter of 2015 the flower spikes grew tall in December in response to very mild weather, and there were even some flowers out in January 2016.) Rhododendron has oval buds of varying sizes in the centre of its leaf rosettes, but these are leaf buds rather than flower buds: occasionally if the weather is mild you can see one opening up.

In gardens winter jasmine is a bare stalked shrub with yellow flowers. It always seems to be partly in bloom, with some flowers open and closed buds of others evident. By the end of the month they are fading a bit, but continue flowering into February (or even March).

There are also winter flowering cherry trees, confusing some into thinking that ordinary cherry trees are flowering early: again, these are rather variable in the timing, with some fading in January (or exceptionally in 2022-23, in December) and others continuing in bloom into February. (Just to make matters extra confusing in January 2016, after a very mild December, cherry plum blossom - a white-flowered shrub in the wild, a pink-flowered tree in parks and suburban streets - was also coming out in force by mid January and was full out at the end of the month, but mid February or March is the more normal time for this.)

Another winter garden stalwart that always seems to be only half in flower is viburnum, a white flowered shrub, which can last until March. There is also a very different pink-flowered variant - viburnum farreri - which might be confused at a casual glance with winter flowering cherry (though it is a shrub, not a tree).

Still in gardens, in milder years or more sheltered locations rosemary can produce blue flowers, though usually it waits till March or April. On heaths and downs gorse has a few yellow flowers (quite a lot in milder years), as it has had since as far back as October.

Hedgerow seeds and berries

Draped across hedgerows on chalk soils you can still see old man's beard (the seeds of traveller's joy, which is a wild variety of clematis), though even early in January it is starting to blow away and by the month's end many plants are bare.

Most berries have fallen, rotten away or been eaten by birds, but a few hips and wild privet berries hang on throughout January, while occasional haws or sloes (probably rotten by now), or very occasional spindle or black bryony berries, are more likely early in the month. Holly berries, so abundant in December, disappear very quickly after Christmas, presumably eaten by birds (redwings like them apparently), though a few may survive in places till mid month, or even later.

Wood pigeons, blackbirds and thrushes (including redwings and fieldfares) also eagerly await the ripening of ivy berries, a key winter food for them (though the whole plant is poisonous to humans). Like the flowering of the plant, this varies considerably in timing from bush to bush. Late January to early February is usually the peak time, though some can be ripe at the end of December and others not ripe till early March.

Ripe ivy berries are black with a black cap (green with a brown cap and then olive or grey with a black cap otherwise), but the easiest way to tell when they are ready is through wood pigeons, who fly up with a great clatter when you walk past a bush they were feeding on. Just to confuse the issue, however, some wood pigeons go for the berries even before they are ripe, perhaps keen to nab this useful food source before another bird gets to it.

Two other types of berry which are popular foods for birds (especially blackbirds, thrushes, fieldfares and redwings) have often already been eaten by the start of January, but some can remain, perhaps on bushes less accessible to birds, such as those by busy roads. One is cotoneaster, with its red berries, and the other is firethorn (also known as pyracantha), which has berries that are usually orange but sometimes red. Both of these are really garden plants, but crop up in semi-wild situations.

Snowberry is also an escapee, but much more adventurous (or perhaps invasive), meaning it can be found quite a way from civilisation. It may still sport some of its distinctive white berries, though they are increasingly disappearing or rotting away by now. The long-leaved plant with pods of berry-like red-orange seeds that you sometimes see on verges or in woods is stinking iris.

More January pages:

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