The days may be cold and the hours of daylight limited, but the plant world still offers things to see. There are berries of Ivy, Hawthorn, Yew and Holly. Spindle has orange fruits in a pink casing. If you look carefully at an Elder bush you may see the red-tinged shoots at the junction of branches. The catkins of Hazel are elongating in readiness for producing pollen in late winter. Holly leaves low down bear spines, but those out of reach of browsing animals do not. The leaves of Ivy are a different shape, depending on whether they are on a flowering shoot or not. Look for bunches of Mistletoe high up in trees - West Wycombe and Cliveden are particularly good.
Some plants flower nearly every month of the year, including the yellow of Groundsel, the blue of Speedwells and White Deadnettle. A close look at the flowers of the latter will show that they are surprisingly hairy. A few spring flowering plants are making fresh new growth, such as Cow Parsley and Cleavers. The circular rosettes, flat to the ground, of Ragwort and some Thistles can be very noticeable. The flowering stems will grow from the centre of the rosette in spring. Primroses and Cowslips are starting to produce new leaves.
It’s also worth looking at the buds of trees. These vary from the long slender buds of Beech, through the smaller, rounder buds of Oak, to the stocky, and sticky, buds of Horse Chestnut. The buds of Ash are black. With practice it is possible to identify trees from their bark, and even from their outline and general appearance as seen from a distance.
Winter is a good time to look for mosses and liverworts. These are some of our most primitive of plants, thought to be similar to some of the earliest plants to have colonised the land hundreds of millions of years ago. They reproduce by spores, rather than by seeds, and need to have a film of water covering the plants and their surroundings in order to be able to produce spores. They grow on bare ground, on fallen logs as well as on living trees, on rocks and even on some types of litter, including old car tyres and glass bottles. In summer they often turn brown and shrivel up, but from autumn they green up and put on new growth. Many will produce capsules on short stalks from late winter into spring. The capsules and stalks are often yellow or red, making the plants more noticeable. Look out for clumps or cushions of green on fine twigs of various trees. A near circular patch of green on the trunk of a mature tree may well be Forked Veilwort, a liverwort with a flattened, Y-shaped body. The ground in woodland will probably be covered by various types of “feather moss”. These help to absorb water and slow down run-off after heavy downpours. Closer to home, there may well be mosses growing on your roof tiles, brick or stone walls, on the tarmac of pavements and in your lawn. It may be that you do not welcome mosses growing in such places, but please have a closer look at these great survivors. Using a hand lens or magnifying glass, they are surprisingly varied and attractive. They also provide a miniature habitat for various tiny creatures, which in turn provide food for birds and other animals. Should the human race ever disappear, it will be the mosses, along with lichen, that will cover our roads and buildings with a layer of green, and start the process of soil formation, allowing other plants to get established.