A December Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, it can all feel a bit bleak in the UK at this time of year – the days are still getting shorter, the weather is often grey and the trees are leafless. But even so, if you look closely enough there are still signs that beneath the surface, plants are alive and fuelling up for the spring.

The ash trees are full of buds. I’ve mentioned before that they always look to me like the hooves of tiny deer. It will be a while before the tree bursts into flowers and then into leaf, but the sap is still running and the tree is just biding its time.

I found this lovely film showing a year in the life of an ash tree on the Woodland Trust site – do have a look, it’s gorgeous.

And then there are the horse chestnuts. They have a triumvirate of distinctive sticky buds, and the secretion covering the buds has been investigated in this paper, which found that it protected the developing leaves and flowers against differences in temperature during the autumn, spring and winter, against both water loss and excessive water penetration, and against UV rays. It was also surprisingly sticky throughout all these changes in conditions, which made it a substantial deterrent to insect pests.  Quite a substance! And it’s no wonder that scientists interested in biomimicry are investigating it as a possible non-toxic, robust adhesive.

The Woodland Trust has also done a short film on a year in the life of a horse chestnut tree. I like that it doesn’t shy away from the leaf damage done by the horse chestnut leaf miner, which seems to be pretty much universally present these days. Still, these trees are robust and seem to soldier on regardless.

It’s not just the trees who are indicating that they’re still full of vigour. Look at the cow parsley leaves, already showing through the leaf litter! There are lots of lesser celandine leaves starting to poke through too, and some winter heliotrope.

The snowberry comes into its own at this time of year, with the white berries shining bright against the dark background. In my experience, these are the fruits least liked by birds – maybe they don’t associate the whiteness with edibility, or maybe they are just low in food value. Still, the plant is good cover when it’s fully leafed (it was originally imported as cover for game birds).

And the ivy flowers have turned into little sputniks. Soon they will be the black berries beloved by wood pigeons and other birds. Every ivy-covered tree  seems to explode with the clatter of wood pigeon wings as I pass.

The conifers are full of small birds. I hear and identify the calls of several goldcrests, but I haven’t managed to get a decent photo yet. Still, here’s what they sound like (uploaded from my Birdnet app, which I can’t recommend highly enough). You can hear the rumble of the North Circular Road in the background.

And here’s what the little darlings look like. They are the UK’s smallest bird, weighing from 4.5 to 7 grams, and are members of the kinglet family, so my North American readers might be familiar with some of their relatives.

Goldcrest (Regulus regulus) by Gail Hampshire

It’s not just the goldcrests who are active though – small birds of all kinds need to be on the lookout for food during every daylight hour, just to survive through the hours of darkness, especially during a cold snap. This blue tit was probably looking for tiny invertebrates amongst the leaves at the top of this conifer.

Meantime, ‘my’ swamp cypress has passed its peak and is beginning to look a little threadbare…

…and in the category of ‘things that I hadn’t noticed before’ I spotted that one of my favourite crab apples appears to have two trunks. Was this a bit of misplaced pruning when the plant was young, I wonder, or is it an example of a graft? The tree seems all of a piece when in leaf though. Let me know what you think.

This is the same tree in flower back in March this year.

And finally, I hadn’t noticed this baby Scots pine before, planted all on its own in a new part of the cemetery. It’s already getting that windblown look that I associate with the tree, but it will be a while before it reaches the dizzy heights of some of its older neighbours.

Scots pine

And so, although we’re ten days away from the winter solstice on 21st December, there are already signs of the spring to come. Everything is waiting for the starting gun of the longer days, although the weather in January and February can be hard for plants and animals alike. Still, it’s good to realise that nature is ticking away in the background, never stopping.

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