February heralds the first real signs of tree refoliation and flowering, but this is often stopped in its tracks as cold snaps follow mild spells, writes Dr Terry Mabbett.

I grew up believing February was the wettest month of the year. True or not, February 2020 certainly came through by weighing in 209.1 mm, the highest February rainfall since 1862 and representing 237 per cent of the February average. I was right about the ground being most saturated in February and the long-held belief backed up by the even older country rhyme of ‘February Fill-Dyke’ – “February fill the dyke, Be it black or be it white; But if it be white, It’s the better to like.”

February was the month when winter snow melted to overfill the dykes and ditches.

February brings the rain

Thaws the frozen lake again.

From Poem of the Months by Sara Coleridge (1802–1852)


February comes from ‘februa’ or ‘februare’, the Latin for purge or purification, when the landscape was purified by returning light and melting snow. Related events include ‘Candlemas’ (Festival of Returning Light) on the second day of the month. Candlemas was a pagan festival adopted by Christianity and rebranded the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ and the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. February 15th was the Roman Festival of Februalia.

Forestry Journal: February fills the dykes and the ditches. Hadley Green on the outskirts of North London, which is ancient common land. Wet acid grassland criss-crossed by ditches and peppered with ponds.February fills the dykes and the ditches. Hadley Green on the outskirts of North London, which is ancient common land. Wet acid grassland criss-crossed by ditches and peppered with ponds.

Fascinating maybe, but how do trees fit in with February? Trees are girding for growth as they feel the first tentative benefits of lengthening days and rising temperatures. February heralds the first real signs of tree refoliation and flowering, but this is often stopped in its tracks as cold snaps follow mild spells. February frustration sets in with trees seemingly in suspended animation until March, when winter finally releases its grip on the landscape. 

February is when spring bulbs and corms growing under deciduous trees make their move to flower and bulk up before tree canopies close in and shut them down. February is when you can truly appreciate epiphytes or so-called air plants, such as lichens, which grow on trees.


As January skates into February, some trees are already taking a chance, especially if December and January were mild. Most are still slumbering, but, if you know what to look for, you will find it. One of the first native trees to risk new leaves in February is hawthorn, but only the chancers, those plants which perennially sport extra-early foliage, clearly governed by the genes.

Study a hawthorn hedge over several years and you will know exactly which shrubs to visit if you fancy dining al fresco in February. ‘Bread and cheese’ is the old country name for newly emerged hawthorn leaves, which have a pleasant nutty taste. Of course, hawthorn leaves taste nothing like bread and cheese, but the name has grown up with generations of children who have nibbled on them in late winter and early spring.

However, in earlier times hawthorn leaves were eaten more widely, especially in times of hardship or famine. In 1753, colliers at Kingswood near Bristol resorted to eating young hawthorn leaves as they marched on Bristol to protest about the export of wheat from the port. Just be absolutely sure of your plant identification skills before you go eating leaves from any tree or other wild plant species.

Forestry Journal: The traditional name for snowdrops is Candlemas bells because the bell-shaped flowers are always open on Candlemas Day (2 February).The traditional name for snowdrops is Candlemas bells because the bell-shaped flowers are always open on Candlemas Day (2 February).

More uniformly reliable for its foliage and flowers in February is the cherry plum or myrobalan plum (Prunus cerasifera). This exotic but now naturalised and domiciled tree species starts to show off new growth and flowers towards the end of the month. Prunus cerasifera, like hawthorn (Crataegus sp) and blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) belongs to the plant family Rosaceae.

Prunus cerasifera was introduced during the 16th century from its native Balkan distribution. Wild-type cherry plum with its white flowers is consistently confused with blackthorn, especially in southern England where the two have grown side by side and hybridised over the centuries. Some otherwise highly respectable textbooks do not even mention cherry plum, presumably because the author is not aware of a separate existence from blackthorn. Cherry plum was always more frequent in southern England but has progressively moved north. However, according to recent maps, it is still scarce in Wales and Scotland.

Be that as it may, if you see a shrub, bush or small tree in overgrown hedgerows bearing white flowers in February, with a floral formula comprising five sepals, five petals, 10–30 stamens, and one pistil, which corresponds to Rosaceae, then you have almost certainly found cherry plum.

There’s no reasonable excuse to confuse pure cherry plum with pure blackthorn which does not usually flower in southern England until the first week of April. However, one real clincher for Prunus cerasifera is the first flush of leaves and flowers appearing at the same time. Blackthorn bears blossom on bare branches in early April with first leaves appearing as the flowers die.


It’s the second day of February and under trees and in the hedgerows are clumps of white flowers called Candlemas bells.  And the reason why they are so called? The bell-shaped flowers are open on Candlemas Day. We are talking about snowdrops.

Forestry Journal: Snowdrops flowering in ash woods in Suffolk.Snowdrops flowering in ash woods in Suffolk.

Snowdrops have been in Britain for a long time. My best guess is introduction from the Balkans in the 16th century. Snowdrops are naturalised in Britain but not recorded in the wild until the 18th century. They are most abundant and attractive amongst common ash (Fraxinus excelsior).

Ash woodland is ideal for spring flowering plants. Ash is one of the last woodland trees to refoliate in late May, allowing maximum time for bulbs and corms to bulk up for next year. But with Chalara ash dieback disease now scything through common ash, will the heart-warming sight of snowdrops under ash trees on a cold February day become a pleasure of the past?

The yellow winter aconite is another exotic and naturalised spring plant found flowering in woodlands during February. Eranthis hyemalis, which has a corm instead of a bulb and is in the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), was introduced in the late 16th century from the Balkans and found growing wild in Britain in 1838. Winter aconite prefers calcareous soils and is a common sight on walks in the Chiltern woodlands gracing Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire.

These two exceptionally early spring flowering plants are exotic. Native bulb, corm and tuber forming equivalents such as bluebell, wood anemone and wood sorrel, the latter closely associated with beech woods, are not seen flowering in abundance until late March or April.

Forestry Journal: February brings the rain and thaws the frozen lake again.February brings the rain and thaws the frozen lake again.

Lichens decorate the branches of trees throughout the year, but they look at their best when lit up in February when they are unobscured by leaves.  Old elder trees covered with yellow-coloured lichen glow on the landscape in the late-February sunshine. Best native tree host is common ash with its abundance of yellow, blue and whitish coloured lichens. Some lichens are highly specific to common ash and therefore equally at risk from Chalara.


This leads me to February Fill-Dyke, a painting by Benjamin Williams Leader, which essentially led me into penning this piece. First exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1881, the darkening late afternoon scene shows a group walking down a track and past a thatched cottage with a church and trees silhouetted against a cold winter sky.

Surface water is everywhere, with a flock of ducks in the foreground as if to emphasise the sheer saturation of the scene. Trees have been accurately painted in incredible detail, including willows and four English elms with their classic and unique-looking winter canopies. English elms were common at this time and the Dutch elm disease pandemic was still a whole century away. English yew is the tree most closely associated with English churches, but churchyards had their fair share of elms prior to Dutch elm disease.

Benjamin William Leader’s painting is real and reminiscing. The memories evoked for me are in the late 1950s, trudging back to my aunt’s cottage after splashing around in water-filled chalk dells on a Hertfordshire farm, with the promise of an open fire, watching Roy Rogers and Tonto on a tiny TV and eating pilchards on toast for tea – now there’s a thought.


Sara Coleridge was the daughter of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), who was a close companion of William Wordsworth. Coleridge is probably best remembered in the tree world for his poem ‘This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison’, written in 1797. It reflects on a time when he was forced to sit under a lime tree while his friends were enjoying the countryside.

The title of Leader’s painting comes from the age-old rhyme ‘February Fill Dyke’.

February fill the dyke,

Be it black or be it white;

But if it be white,

It’s the better to like

The original painting can be seen at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery at Chamberlain Square in Birmingham.

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