February has been relatively mild so far especially compared to the ‘Big Freeze’ of last year, which began with snow on the 8 February and left the ground in a kind of alien permafrost or its melting counterpart for several weeks.

Although the kids are pining for a bit of sledging action, I’m relieved to creep that little further towards spring, with the ancient pagan festival of Imbolc at the beginning of the month (1–2 February 2022) – the midpoint between the Winter Solstice (21 December 2021) and the Spring Equinox (20 March 2022) – celebrating the impending growing season, new life and lighter and warmer climes.

I know I’m not alone in yearning for the long, hot spring of 2020 albeit not being locked down at the same time. Perhaps we will be lucky to have a rerun of the former this year but with the freedom to roam.


Up on the flats, there are certainly stirrings of new growth: the buds of some of the most prominent deciduous trees such as horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), oak (Quercus spp.), hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) and beech (Fagus sylvatica), ready to unfurl their first raft of impossibly green vernal leaves. Bright yellow blooms on spiky gorse bushes (Ulex europaeus) racing ahead of the similarly yellow-flowered but softer-leaved Scotchbroom (Cistius scoparius) that has bounced back from the great fire of 2018. Deliciously soft, silver-grey male catkins standing upright among the rounded leaves of the goat or pussy willows (Salix caprea) by Alexander Pond that will gain a halo of yellow pollen by March. Look out for the green female catkins on nearby goat willows too (these plants are dioecious, so the male and female catkins grow on different trees). Not as showy but just as important as it is the female forms that, once wind-pollinated, will go onto produce the fruits and seeds that can make the plants of the future.


Imbolc not only ushers in spring (the maiden), but it also waves goodbye to the passing season (the crone) and the gnarled, wanting beauty within.

The skeletal forms of many trees, for example, some wide and rounded, other upwards branching or tall. Without their leaves you might stop and notice the cloak of their bark instead, or their budding shoots. It’s quite fun to try and recognise trees this way, rather than by their foliage – go old school with a guidebook such as the illustrated Collins Tree Guide (Owen Johnson & David More; Collins, 2006) or the photographic Collins Complete Guide to British Trees (Paul Sterry; Collins, 2008) – both have guides to shoots and bark at the front – or download the Woodland Trust’s Tree ID app for on-the-spot discovery.


Online local nature resource Wanstead Wildlife has a list of trees recorded across Wanstead Flats, Bush Wood and Wanstead Park (along with detailed notes on plants, birds and other wildlife), plus there’s a handy downloadable map if – like me – you’re often trying (and failing) to tell people which stand of trees, ‘field’ or section you’re talking about. The ‘East Copse’, north-east of the changing rooms on Capel Road felt more like a clearing than a woodland when I visited this week. But soon the pedunculate and red oaks (Quercus robur and Quercus borealis; with their ridged bark and a cluster of buds at each shoot tip) and the common beeches (Fagus sylvatica; with their smoother grey bark and long, fine spreading buds) will soon merge to form a canopy of green.


I also coerced my eldest son  – who was off school and needed, in my humble opinion, some restorative Vitamin ‘N’ (for nature) as well as D – to check in on the hawthorns (Crataegus monogyna) above Long Wood (a favourite for making ‘nests’ of leaves under when he was little), the black locust trees (Robinia pseudoacacia) by the North Copse (one of the more unusual species found here) and the elderberries (Sambucus nigra) towards Alexandra Pond, where we sometimes come to pick a few flowers for cordial in spring. We didn’t see little owl (another inhabitant of North Copse), but we did spot some parakeets, got a full face of sunshine and felt all the better for it.


If you need a reason to get out and about, another local nature initiative the WREN group have also put out a call for ‘skylark monitors’ following the success of stronger nesting conservation efforts last year (at least two skylark chicks are known to have successfully fledged in this precious protected site – the nearest to London). Holes cut in the fence to allow dog walkers in over winter will be closed from 19 February 2022, with a two- to three-week Skylark Watch taking place from that time. If you would like to volunteer for a 2-hour slot once a week contact Gill James at gilljames@btinternet.com. It really is the highlight of a visit to hear one of these now rare birds sing, an even bigger treat to see these cute, tuft-headed birds with your very own eyes.


Sonya Patel Ellis is a writer, editor and artist exploring the interconnectedness of nature. Author of Collins Botanical Bible (Harper Collins, 2018), The Heritage Herbal (The British Library, 2020), Collins Garden Birdwatchers Bible (Harper Collins, 2020) and the forthcoming The Modern Gardener (Harper Collins, 17 February 2022) she is often to be found roaming around nearby Wanstead Flats or in her garden for botanical inspiration. See www.abotanicalworld.com for more details plus signed books and botanically inspired prints. Writing for wellbeing workshops coming soon.

Photography © Sonya Patel Ellis