Dear Readers, here’s my updated post for February. It can feel like a very bleak month, but actually spring is stirring all over the place. Here are a few suggestions to warm the cockles…
Things to Do
- The snowdrops should be in full swing by the early part of February, and there are several places in London where you can really enjoy them. They really raise my spirits, and I hope they will do the same for you.
- Chelsea Physic Garden normally has a snowdrop trail from when they re-open at the end of January, and you can buy many, many varieties in their shop. In my experience, the only way to get the little darlings established is to plant them in the green, after many, many attempts to grow them from bulbs, so this might be a good way to enlarge your stock. The bees much prefer the simpler single-flowered varieties, by the way….
- Myddleton House Gardens in Enfield usually have a fine show of snowdrops in their Alpine Meadow, if you live in North London, or Eltham Palace is another excellent choice if you live South of the River.
- If you’d rather not pay out to see these plants in all their glory, I’d head off for your nearest not-too-well-manicured cemetery. My local, St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, has a glorious selection of naturalised snowdrops in some of the wilder areas, and Tower Hamlets Cemetery is said to be a great spot too.
- If it’s too blooming cold to be out and about (and goodness knows this is often the case), February is usually a relatively quiet month at the Natural History Museum (though if you aren’t taking the children I’d avoid half term, when the queues outside can be most alarming). The museum itself is free, but I love the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, which has apparently been re-staged this year (I shall report back when I’ve been). I always find it inspirational.
- Thursday 2nd February is World Wetland Day: there aren’t a lot of things going on, surprisingly, but there is this walk at Wicken Fen in Ely, Cambridgeshire, and this walk at my favourite bit of wetland in Walthamstow (looks like it might be fully booked, but maybe worth ringing for cancellations).
- The Orchid Festival at Kew opens on 4th February – I’m booked for a date in March, and I couldn’t be more excited. This year the festival is featuring orchids from Cameroon, where I spent a month at the Ape Action Africa chimpanzee and gorilla sanctuary, so I’m hoping to meet a few old botanical friends. You can read about my adventures, and about my good friend Robin Huffman, an extraordinary painter of animal portraits, here.
Plants for Pollinators
For February, the RHS is suggesting goat willow (Salix caprea) and I can see why – a tree at Crossbones Graveyard in South London that I visited a few years ago was absolutely abuzz with feeding queen bumblebees and honeybees. One of my big regrets is that I had a self-sown goat willow next to my pond, but took it out because I have so many trees in my small garden. Maybe I should have left it. (And now I have one that my friend J bought me for my birthday, so I am delighted!)
A few of the earlier solitary bees will also be out and about now, including several of the mining bee species.
However, there is hope, as my front garden containers are full of early-flowering crocuses, another favourite. In my experience these bulbs are happiest in full sun – they are always a bit sad in my north-facing back garden, where the woodland bulbs such as fritillaries and wood anemones seem fine. Other plants suggested by the RHS are snowdrops (hooray!), the cherry plum, and Erica x darleyensis (also known as Darley Dale heather), another plant for full sun.
Spring comes to the birds much earlier than it does to us mere humans, and although birds are unlikely to be actually breeding yet, they will certainly be pairing up and trying to stake out a territory. Woodpigeons will be singing their breathy songs, and collared doves will be chasing one another around, tooting like miniature trumpeters. One of my lasting memories of being a child in bed is waking up to the sound of the pigeons cooing on the chimney pot, their songs echoing down the chimney.
It’s worth watching out for breeding displays, too. A male chaffinch performs a fluttering, moth-like flight beside a female that he’s hoping to impress, and then perches beside her and leans over to show her his belly. At this point the female can either stay for some more shenanigans, or leave to find someone with a more attractive abdomen.
Blue tits also perform a little display flight, usually from one perch to another – a male might flap his wings a little more quickly than seems strictly necessary, or even glide, quite a feat for such a small bird. These displays are so easily missed, but once seen they’re an obvious show of prowess.
And it’s worth keeping an eye open for the male dunnock’s ‘armpit’ display as well, plus all the general goings on with the females mating with multiple males and the males beating one another up.
And finally, crows might already be flying about with twigs in their mouths. They might not actually get down to egg-laying yet, but that nest isn’t going to build itself. You might also be witness to confrontations between crows and magpies over nest sites and building materials. There is a lot of drama going on in February, and it’s worth tuning into.
Plants in Flower
In addition to the plants mentioned above, keep a nose attuned for the sweet smell of Daphne, one of the most gorgeous of winter-scented flowers in my opinion. Some camellias will be coming into flower, but the rain damages the blossom, so if you see a pristine one it’s something to celebrate. Hyacinths will be bursting forth too, and sweet violets, and primroses. And the first shy white flowers of blackthorn will be putting in an appearance.
Other Things to Watch/Listen Out For
- By now, most female foxes are pregnant, and there might be a brief break from the shrieks and carrying-on of January. Vixens will be looking to find a safe place to have their cubs, and will also be very hungry. If you have foxes visiting your garden, keep an eye open for them looking a little thicker around the middle than usual. Males will also be beginning to look for food for the vixen, and later for the cubs, who are mostly born in mid March.
- Towards the end of February the first frogs will emerge if the weather isn’t too cold – the males arrive first (they’ve usually been hibernating at the bottom of the pond) followed by the females, who tend to overwinter in other places in the garden (probably to avoid being drowned by all the amorous males). You might even hear the first faint sound of frog-music in the evening.
- This is the best time of year to see the great grey shrike – they are a very rare winter visitor, but if they are going to turn up (and they will sometimes revisit sites year after year) it’s likely to be in February.
- Alexanders is a very early bloomer, earlier even than cow parsley – it has yellowish flowers, and may already be in bud.
- Great spotted woodpeckers are already drumming and setting up their territories.
- Nuthatches will also be more active, running up and down the branches and trunks of trees.
- You might see the odd peacock or small tortoiseshell butterfly stirring – many of these insects hibernate over winter, and a mild spell might tempt them out. Fingers crossed that they don’t emerge, however, as there’s precious little for them to feed on at this time of year.
- Mallards are getting ready for the breeding season – the males often display in groups, bobbing and quacking and beating one another up, before descending on any female who isn’t fast enough to get away. With luck, most females will pair up with a male who will protect her from such nonsense.
- Full moon is on the 5th February, and is known as the snow moon, the ice moon or the storm moon.
- Ist February is Imbolc, the Gaelic/Pagan spring festival. It’s also the Christian festival St Brigid’s Day (St Brigid is the patron saint of Ireland). It’s said to be the day when ewes were first milked – sheep were more likely to survive the winter in good condition than cows, and also they would produce their lambs in the very early spring. Fresh milk would have been a necessity at this point, midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and traditionally one of the hungriest times of the year.
- 14th February is St Valentine’s Day, traditionally the day when restauranteurs rub their hands, fill their establishments with twice the usual number of tables and double their prices for menus that invariably include a chocolate dessert, some kind of seafood and the smallest piece of steak that you have ever seen. Not that I’m a tired old cynic or anything :-).
- 15th February is Parinirvana Day for Buddhists. It celebrates the day upon which the Buddha was said to have achieved Nirvana, or enlightenment. It is said to be a day to meditate upon impermanence and death.
- 20th February is known as Collop Monday, Peasen Monday or Nickanan Night in various parts of the UK – it’s the Monday before Lent. In Cornwall, it was a night for mischief, with local boys knocking on doors and running away (though this was also a common practice all year round in the East End when I was growing up). On one occasion, Dad and his mates tied a piece of string to all the door knockers on the road so that they could all be knocked simultaneously, and very amused Dad was too. This was known as ‘Knock Down Ginger’ for some reason lost in the midst of time. Anyhow, in many parts of the country, pea soup was eaten on ‘peasen Monday’, along with foods such as eggs and bacon which would not be allowed during Lent.
- 21st February is Shrove Tuesday – get out those frying pans and knock up a few pancakes! My Mum always loved them with lemon juice and sugar (granulated not caster for a bit of crunch).
- Lent falls on February 22nd this year. Traditionally, this is a period of fasting and self-denial, and I find it interesting that it often coincides with the time of the year when there would be little food available – the autumn stores would be used up, and the spring crops wouldn’t yet be ready. Anything that reminds us that being hungry is not a choice for everybody is likely to be a good thing, I think.