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When you look, you see flowers

Tim Entwisle

Tim Entwisle

January 2, 2012

Everyone else is talking about it so to start the New Year I’ll dive in. It’s a mild winter we’re having (in the UK) isn’t it? Well according to yesterday’s Guardian, not really. It’s been an average kind of December and that’s all we’ve had to judge so far. As for 2011, well that was the second warmest on record thanks to a balmy autumn and pleasant spring. Summer was a bit so so, but that’s all forgotten now. December seems so mild because it’s been a doozy for the last two years.

What happens when people start talking about odd weather and changing climates? They stray into the garden and start observing. Given that most people don’t observe regularly and generally aren’t very good at it, we get all sorts of observations. The sum of these observations – the ‘water cooler’ story as politicians in Australia like to put it – is that we are having an early spring. It wasn’t good enough that bluebells came a month early in March this year, now we have the whole of spring moved three months forward! I have no problem with this. Anything that messes with the seasonal system is grist to my mill (that’s the mill grinding a new seasonal structure for the whole universe). But is it true?

As usual, and also to my delight, yes and no (I do like things that don’t allow people to form caste-iron opinions). Claire Ellicott from the The Telegraph, or at least her subeditors, led with ‘spring blooms arrive early and autumn blossom lingers…so what happened to our winter?’. Well our winter is almost certainly just around the corner – come back in January or February I’d suggest. To be more charitable, some plants are in flower when they shouldn’t, but others are in flower when they should. We’ve just taken the time to observe them.

A good example of the latter is the winter cherry I blogged about a few weeks ago. The Telegraph chose to lead with a picture of this plant. The first paragraph mentioned snowdrops, a regular winter flowerer I also featured recently.

It is true that we’ve only had a couple of frosts so far, so some tender plants and their flowers and fruits have lasted longer than you might expect. And amongst the expected winter flowering plants, such as viburnums and the occasional cherry, there are some surprises. For me it was Ribes speciosum, the fuschia-flowered currant (or fuschia-flowered gooseberry). We have a small plant shoved between a bench and our south-facing wall. I hadn’t given it a second look since we moved in (in May) until Lynda pointed out today that it was in full flower, and leaf. Most reports of this species suggest it looses its leaves in autumn and flowers in spring, albeit early spring.

Andy Jackson, Head of Wakehurst Place (one of the two estates belonging to Royal Botanic Gardens Kew) is more thorough. He divided the plants in flower into three groups.

The first are the winter flowering plants that shouldn’t surprise us (but do, because we just remembered to observe!): Cyclamen coum, Sarcococca, Daphne bholua, Mahonia x media and M. repens, heather cultivars (Erica), hellebores (several species), Winter sweet (Chimonanthus praecox ), honeysuckles (Lonicera several species and cultivars) and camellias.

Then there are the ‘early flowerers’ – some up to eight weeks before we would expect them, so very close to harbingers of spring: snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis and G. elwesii ; perhaps a little early but as I blogged, always expected to be winter flowerers), daffodils (Narcissus tazetta), primrose (Primula vulgaris; normally February but occasional flowering all year round), Rhododendron lutescens (normally March; I photographed this Rhododendron species/cultivar at Kew Gardens, with a non-hibernating bumble-bee, but it may well be a regular winter flowerer…) and Colletia spinosa (normally March).

Finally, Andy lists a bunch that have continued flowering from the late summer through to the winter: Cyclamen hederifolium (normally over by October; they still look great under the trees at the entrance to Wakehurst Place), Lavatera (although not in my backyard at Kew), Abutilon, Callistemon, Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis cultivars; and a yes for my backyard); Schizostylis cultivars and Phlomis chrysophylla .

Sandra Bell, Wildlife and Environment Recording Officer at Kew Gardens, reports much the same for Kew Gardens. For her it is the unusual number of plants that have not finished flowering yet (Andy’s third group). Sandra lists Myrtle, Spanish Broom, Coronilla emerus and Veronica cinerea as species she would have expected to finish flowering weeks, or even months, ago.

Phew! You get the general idea. There are always plants in flower, even in the middle of winter, but it seems we have more this year than usual. Some are early, some are late. It’s always worth a look.

From Talking Plants