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March trees and shrubs

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Picture: cherry plum blossom in a park. Click here for more March tree photos.

Hedgerows and trees are still mainly brown and bare in March, but they are starting to wake up, with blossom and new leaves appearing on some species.

The month often begins with cherry plum in flower - both the pink-flowered ornamental park or city street version (actually often white-flowered if you look closely, but with red-brown foliage that makes its flowers appear pink) and the wild white one in the countryside. Timings vary dramatically from year to year, depending on how cold it is: it can come out as early as mid February or not till mid March (see February trees and shrubs for a record of recent years).

Once out, cherry plum usually lasts about three weeks, though there have been years when a cold snap hit just as flowering was starting and it then went into suspended animation for several weeks. Extremes include 2010, when cherry plums did not come out till late March, and 2016 when a warm December and January persuaded many to flower in early February, going over at its end, though some flowered in March as usual and lasted into the first week of April.

After the cherry plum blossom fades it is replaced by leaves (some younger bushes leaf without flowering), so that in a normal year the wild cherry plum is one of the first shrubs in the countryside to put out new greenery. Confusingly it is then followed by the almost identical blackthorn blossom. It is not untypical for some of these - usually younger or smaller bushes - to flower in the second half of March, and in some years there is a more widespread flowering of larger bushes in the last week of the month. Otherwise, this happens in the first week of April.

Blackthorn has a very short flowering time - ten days or so at best. Some younger ones, or the lower parts of more mature ones, may also go straight to leaf, though generally foliage only appears as the blossom falls in mid April. Blackthorn can be told apart from cherry plum by the thorns sticking out horizontally from its branches, which soften and become covered in blossom when it flowers. Cherry plum also has folded-back sepals on its flowers, while blackthorn does not.

Another cheerful sight at this time of year is forsythia, a garden shrub that is found in semi-wild situations too and which banishes the winter blues with a great wash of yellow flowers. Again, timings vary: it typically comes out sometimes in the first half of March, but it can be as early as mid February.

Occasionally forsythia flowers start to appear but are held back by cold weather, as in 2023, when tentative blooms in late February and early March were kept at bay until mid March, or 2018, when flowers started mid month but did not come out fully until its end. In 2013 an unrelentingly cold March meant forsythia did not come out till the second week in April, while in 2016 some flowered as early as late December in response to a very mild winter up to that point. As with cherry plum, the flowers give way to leaves after about three weeks or so.

A garden shrub you can sometimes find in the wild is flowering currant, whose pendulous pink flowers start to appear mid month and are at their best at its end. Only ever found in gardens, but still a key harbinger of spring, is magnolia, whose huge pink flowers first appear tightly closed, and then, when conditions are right, open up to enjoy their brief moment of glory. The latter can happen as early as the second week of March, but the last week or early April is a more normal time. In 2016 some magnolia started to flower in late December and then went into suspended animation when January proved cold: some then bloomed quite early in March while others waited till April.

Other flowering garden shrubs that attract attention at this time of year include Darwin's barberry, which has bright orange flowers in the second half of the month, and rosemary, which may erupt into a blue haze at any time in March, though often it waits till April. Some winter jasmine flowers may linger on early in the month, while viburnum can be fading away if it has flowered a lot earlier in the winter, or still be adding new flowers in March if it has not.

On heathland and scrubland, gorse, whose cheerful yellow flowers have slowly been building up all winter, now makes quite an intense display. The candle-like flower buds on cherry laurel continue to lengthen, with their pale sheaths falling away in the first half of the month (if this has not already happened in February) to reveal green spherical buds on lateral stalks. By the end of the month they are 6-7 centimetres tall, and in some years they are starting to flower at this time, though otherwise this does not happen until April. In 2016 some had been in flower since early January and continued to do so patchily until mid to late April.

The flower spikes distinguish cherry laurel from the otherwise very similar-looking rhododendron, which has more conventional, bulb-shaped buds: earlier in the year these produce new foliage, and this sometimes happens in March too, but some may also be flower buds now, as the plant readies to bloom in May.

Box (for example on the slopes of Box Hill) may put out flowers in places in March, or even in late February. In some years wild cherry starts to leaf and flower at the very end of the month, though April is the normal time for this.

Shrubs adding foliage

Though April is the main month when shrubs and trees spring into leaf, the process makes a start in March, while other plants have had some foliage all winter.

The appearance of leaves on cherry plum and forsythia once their flowers fade, as well as the occasional early blackthorn foliage, is mentioned above. Other shrubs in leaf in March include privet and buddleia. Both retain some of their foliage in winter and now add more. On garden privet (the kind found in garden hedges) this process is usually under way when the month starts (you see clusters of small new leaves).

On wild privet (narrower leaves) it is a bit more tentative, but most will be showing leaf buds - or even small leaf hearts - though they usually do not grow much during the month. Buddleia has had small new leaves since shedding its previous year's foliage in October: these grow to around half to two thirds of their final size in March.

Honeysuckle has clusters of new foliage too, having put out some as early as December (or even November): it can be quite a surprise to see these in the middle of otherwise bare woods. These leaf clusters can remain quite small in March, though ones near gardens or habitation, which preserve more vegetation in winter, can be quite thick and lush by now.

Unless it is very cold, the tentative small leaf clusters that appeared on elder as early as January increase in quantity and size as March goes on. The garden escapee firethorn (aka pyracantha) adds new leaves to its existing ones from around mid month (sometimes earlier).

Other shrubs seem to be testing the air. On dog rose you can see curled up tubes of new foliage, or even tiny new leaves as the month progresses. As early as mid month (late February in 2020 and in places from the second week of March in 2022 and quite widely in 2024) bramble also starts to put out new leaves from the buds on its stems that appeared in January, though they remain very small and tentative.

Raspberry starts to leaf from mid month too and can be easily confused with bramble: it grows straight up, while bramble puts out runners that spread horizontally. You may also spot new leaves appearing on redcurrant in the latter half of the month. Snowberry - usually a park or garden shrub but sometimes found in the wild - produces new foliage from the second week onward.

Right from the start of the month some smaller or younger hawthorn bushes put out new leaves. In 2007, 2012, 2014 and 2024 all hawthorns then went on to leaf in the third week, while in 2011, 2017, 2019, 2020 and 2023 this happened in the fourth week. In 2022 around half of hawthorns were in leaf by this time. In other years it is not until April that they leaf en masse.

Other shrubs that start to produce foliage in March include lilac and traveller's joy, the latter producing a few scattered leaf clusters rather greening up generally, these appearing even while there are still some dribs and drabs of old man's beard, last year's seed, which can last till late in the month. You may also see new leaf shoots on dogwood, tamarisk (by the sea) and clematis montana (a pink flowered clematis that lives semi-wild on railway line fences and the like).

A few of last autumn's berries may linger into March. Hips are still fairly common (though may be rotting by now) and help one to identify dog roses coming into leaf. Black ivy berries may also last into March, though most have been snapped up by wood pigeons and other birds by now.

You might also see the occasional berries of holly or wild privet, or the seedhead of stinking iris, which looks like a cluster of red-orange berries. Firethorn (aka pyracantha) and cotoneaster berries can also survive if they were not consumed by birds back in the winter, while a few (probably rotting) white berries may just remain on snowberry bushes.

The first tree to come into leaf

The first tree to come into leaf is – surprisingly – weeping willow, which can put out green shoots even in the second half of February, and is generally full out - with small leaves and catkins - in the first week of March. They can start out looking a dull yellow, but by the second or third week of the month shine out a glorious yellowish-green in the landscape, a harbinger of the wonderful transformation of the treescape to come. (Some years you don't see this effect till later in March, or even - exceptionally in 2018 - until April). If you see sections of frond on the ground, that is because squirrels cut them off and gnaw their way along them, eating the catkins corn-on-the-cob style.

Towards the end of the month (in the second week in 2020 and the third week in 2017 and 2024) the huge buds on horse chestnut open to disgorge weird tongues of vegetation that eventually morph into small leaves that hang limp and green. It is rare for this process to be much advanced by the end of March, however.

Sometimes as early as mid month, but more usually towards its end, hazel puts out small leaves, though they grow only very slowly. These look almost identical to new leaves on hornbeam (the two trees are related) which also sometimes appear along with inconspicuous female flowers late in the month, but whose leafing is usually preceded by a mass of male catkins, which appear from mid month onwards.

You can otherwise distinguish hazel leaves from hornbeam by the remaining (mostly desiccated and brown) catkins hanging on hazel branches, which can last until mid March or even beyond, but which generally fall in the first week or so of the month, if they have not already done so in late February.

Alder catkins also usually fall in the first or second week, though some can remain on the trees till later in the month: the tree still retains last year's desiccated seed cones. Other seeds you may still see include a few ash keys, empty seed cases on beech and the large spherical seed balls on London plane. Beech and oak trees can still retain some dead leaves from last year: this is usually on saplings or lower branches, as well as on trimmed beech hedges.

Hybrid black poplars have had large male catkins encased in erect brown buds all winter: some time in the second half of March (occasionally in the first or second week, or in early April) they open and a thick erect catkin emerges (maroon, though they can initially look brown), which then droops, hanging down like a huge tassel. You are more likely to notice the mess as the bud cases fall to the ground (possibly aided by wood pigeons trying to eat the new catkins), or when the catkins fall themselves a week or so later, looking like enormous red caterpillars as they lie on the grass (though a few desiccated brown ones usually also remain on the tree).

Lombardy poplars have similar (possibly somewhat smaller catkins) which appear at about the same time. If you see a poplar with green catkins, particularly planted in a row, it might well be a western balsam poplar, which used to be used as a windbreak tree in apple orchards.

Right from the start of March you get fuzzy red flowers on red maple, an imported species mainly seen in streets and parks: they can last for much of the month. English or wych elm has similar flowers at the same time but they are relatively inconspicuous.

March is the month for pussy willow catkins (more correctly, the catkins of the goat willow or sallow and the grey willow - or a hybrid between the two). The white or grey-white buds that will turn into these can appear as early as the end of February, but the catkins themselves - yellow when fully in flower - do not appear en masse till mid month, though you may see a few a bit earlier. (In 2010 they did not come out till the very end of March, and in 2013 not until the second week of April.)

All of this describes the male catkins of pussy willows: the female ones, which appear at the same time on different trees, can also start by looking grey but then turn green. Osier has male catkins similar to pussy willow ones, though more densely packed on its straight, upwardly-pointing branches.

Crack willows, white willows and hybrids of the two, which are found both as full-sized trees and riverside shrubs, don’t put out leaves and catkins until the very end of the month at the earliest. It is usually crack willows that are the first to do this.

By the end of March some sycamore saplings may be coming into leaf, though larger trees wait till mid April, their green buds getting larger in anticipation. The smaller trees are presumably primed to leaf earlier to make the most of the sunlight reaching the woodland floor before the leaf canopy closes.

Early in the month you can see little orange flowers on male yew trees which at some point in the first half (or sometimes in late February) give off clouds of yellow pollen if touched (this can be synchronised over wide areas, so all the yews in a particular region do it at once).

In the second half larch - the only conifer to lose its leaves in winter – puts out new leaf tassels (wonderfully soft to the touch), as well as a very few tiny pink cone-shaped flowers (the female flowers) and little yellow buds (the male flowers).

In a few warm years the strange male flowers of ash open at the end of March - they look like frizzy lettuce - and in 2020, probably due to a mild winter, they were out quite widely as early as the second week. You can sometimes tell that they are about to come out by wood pigeons pecking away at them. At the same time you may see the yellowy-green flowers of Norway maple, which look from distance like new leaves.

Also at the end of the month you very occasionally come across budburst on apples, or catkins starting to lengthen (and even small leaves appearing) on birch, but this always seems to be on isolated trees, not the general population. At the same time there is usually budburst on London planes and possibly some on field maple.

More March pages:

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