What you might see on a Local Stroll in Early Spring
Winter feels as though it’s lasted forever this year, but there are buds and blooms appearing already. While we're staying close home to help slow the spread of Covid-19, people are still finding beauty in their immediate locality. Here are some of the things you might see beside the path on an exercise walk near you in February and March.
1. Buds and branches
Even without their green leaves, the shapes of bare trees can be beautiful. It’s a good moment to learn more about how different common species look in their naked splendour (There might be some of last year’s leaves lying nearby to give you a clue).
- Oaks have small clusters of brown buds at the end of each twig, with overlapping scales that protect each bud in the cold weather. The most distinctive characteristics of winter oaks are their deeply-fissured, craggy bark and gnarly, twisted branches. They are often quite big trees with wide trunks and canopies.
- By contrast, beeches have smooth grey bark and the branches tend to start quite high up, delicately splitting into fine twigs. The buds are long, thin and pointed and slightly reddish in colour.
- Ash trees are often quite tall and slender. The branches sprout upwards and then curve downwards again. The main thing to look out for are the large black buds. It’s one of the last trees to get its leaves.
- Slim silver birches, with their cracked silver-white bark and thin, elegantly trailing branches, are among the most recognisable trees. They have small green buds and little catkins, which stay on the tree all winter, but the pale bark means it’s easy to distinguish them from hazels.
- Hazels are also easy to spot in winter as the long yellow catkins often flower as early as January. There are buds too (small, reddish) and the many stems and branches often grow straight up out from the ground.
- Tall, with scaly bark and branches that arching branches sweep downwards and turn up at the end, horse chestnut trees are known for their candle-like blossom spikes in spring, big hand-shaped leaves and shiny autumn conkers. But they also have distinctive brown sticky buds in winter, protected by gummy scales.
2. Wild and garden flowers and blossom
The earliest flowers appear even before the old year has ended and, by February, there are snowdrops and aconites under the trees and primroses on grassy banks. An ordinary suburban road on the way to the shops can be transformed in early spring by the flowers in people’s front gardens. Flowering times are generally later as you move north in the UK.
- Gardens across the UK have spectacular displays of white snowdrops drawing crowds most years. In 2021, we’ll have to be happy spotting them locally in woods and parks and gardens. But galanthophiles (snowdrop-lovers) can plan ahead for future outings with our guide to car-free snowdrops. Purple or golden crocuses start to open too in the spring sunshine, providing pollen for bees.
- Aconites also like to grow in partly-shaded places under leafless trees. Their yellow flowers brighten the winter days from January. Celandines, too are bright yellow and shiny, but with more pointed petals making little star-shaped flowers and rounded leaves.
- Shy violets like to hide under hedges and in woods, but you can also find them spreading across lawns, often with primroses, whose pale yellow flowers can bloom as early as December in mild winters.
- Daffodils can also flower earlier, but still have their heyday around March. Daff-tastic places to visit in future years are listed in our car-free guide.
- Camellias, magnolias and some cherries flower early in gardens. In the countryside, blackthorn is among the first. These dark spiky bushes, known for their sour blue sloes in autumn, have frothy white flowers in early spring.
3. Fungi and lichen
Even on the greyest, bleakest day in early February, when flowers are in short supply, there are splashes of colour to be found in woods and hedges. Fungi on the dead trees and lichen on the branches flourish in the wet, wintry conditions.
- The wood ear or jelly ear fungi like to grow on dead elder trees. As the name suggests, they are roughly ear shaped and gelatinous. They are generally brownish, sometimes with a purple tinge.
- You may be lucky enough to spot scarlet elf cups, another winter fungus. And – yes – they are like little red or orange cups.
- Bracket fungi can also be colourful, sticking out from trunks like half-plates or rainbows.
- And look out for different types of lichen on the branches. Lichens grow very slowly and some grow only on old bark so finding lichen can mean that the area of woodland you are in is ancient. It certainly helps it feel atmospheric.