The naked winter forest in North America provides an opportunity to find cocoons of overwintering moth larvae, dried wasp galls and fungi that are often overlooked by the average hiker. I love spending the winter in the woodlands to find these organisms.
During a recent walk in the Maryland woods, I came across a fungus growing from a decayed hardwood stump. Nearby the same fungus grew out the side of a dead oak tree. Though it was a dull gray color, closer examination exposed its intricate beauty. It was the turkey tail mushroom, one of the most common fungus in North America.
Although it is not poisonous, it is woody and unpalatable. Dried and pulverized, it has been brewed for medicinal teas to boost the immune system in ancient China. It is still used today to treat the common cold, cancer and aids in digestion.
Walk in any winter forest in North America and you are bound to see this fungus and yes, it resembles a turkey’s tail.
Walking in a winter wetland forest, in the eastern U.S. my eyes are drawn to green leafless vines growing along the edge of the trail. Numerous spiky thorns protrude from the green stems and small clusters of bluish-black berries dangle in the light breeze. It is the nasty catbriar.
Its thorns remind me of a foray into a wetland area to look for wild orchids one summer’s day. The entrance to the area was covered by a tanglement of catbriar vines that were intertwined so densely that it was impenetrable to everything except small birds. I tried to walk around it, but my shirt became snagged on one of the thorny vines. As I pulled away it tore holes in the garment. Then I accidently stepped on another prickly vine that grabbed my pants. When I pried myself from that vine, it reached out and scratched my arm.
Some plants protect themselves with foul odors, others are distasteful, but catbriar’s thorns will keep away any creature that wants to eat it. Even though I find this plant to be worthless to me, it is important to the environment. Its berries are food for wintering birds and the entanglements of its vines provide cover for small birds and protected places for birds to nest.
My mind returns to now and to avoid coming into contact with this scratchy plant I stay on the opposite side or the trail when suddenly something rubs against my pant legs. It is more briar. Ugh!!!
A plant that brings color to the winter fields and interdunal swales is the eastern red cedar. It is not a true cedar; it is a juniper.
This evergreen tree takes on many forms depending on where it grows. Along the beach front, just behind the primary dune, eastern red cedars grow more prostate. Sea breezes that blow over the top of the dunes prevent the tree from getting too tall. Cedars will take on the form of a large candle inland where they thrive in fields far from the seashore.
Eastern red cedar is a pioneer plant. It is one of the first shrubs to colonize fields created by abandoned farmlands, fires and human disturbance of forests. It paves the way for other trees and shrubs to grow.
Cedar waxwings and other berry loving birds eat the fruit of the cedar (that is how the waxwing got its name). The berries are blue-green to black and full of nutrition for wildlife, but some parts of this tree can be poisonous to people.
Look for this plant in abandoned fields and coastal areas in the eastern U.S. If it is winter time, look closely for birds. Not only do birds eat the berries, but they find shelter in the evergreens too.
Although the woodlands look bleak in the winter, one tree provides a bit of greenery and shelter in pine barren woods in the northeast and mid-Atlantic states. Pitch pine is an evergreen tree with stiff pine needles bundled in sets of threes and short round pine cones. Its thick corky-like bark protects it from wildfires.
These trees are a welcome sight for birds and wildlife. The pine provides shelter from winter storms and its cones have tiny seeds that are eaten by chickadees, crossbills. and squirrels Deer often bed down under pitch pine groves.
There are a couple of major threats to pitch pines. One is the suppression of fire. Pitch pine depends on a fire regime to burn back competing oak trees and open clearings that enable seedlings to grow. A new threat is the southern pine beetle that has spread its range northward, probably enabled by climate change. This bark beetle breeds in the inner bark of the tree where it introduces a fungus that contributes to the decimation of the pine tree.
Will there be pitch pine greenery in winter landscapes in the future? Only if people take measures through prescribed burns and finding a way to control invasive insects and plants will that happen.
Winter forests have a dismal lifeless look with leafless trees, gray tree trunks and crumbled fallen leaves. Yet I still enjoy walking through woods at this time of year to look for signs of life.
In the midst of crumpled brown decaying leaves, I sometimes find a splash of green on the woodland floor. Bending down to get a closer look, I see that it is one of my favorite ground plants – wintergreen. It is a small shrub, a mere three to four inches tall, often hidden from view by blueberries, huckleberries and other shrubs during the growing season. It becomes a winter jewel once the deciduous plants lose their leaves.
This small plant has shiny, oval, dark, evergreen leaves that when broken give off the familiar and fragrant oil of wintergreen. When the weather turns brutally cold, its leaves turn crimson in color. You may even find the red berries the wintergreen produces.
Although the midwinter forest may seem lifeless, there is still much life to be discovered during walks at this time of year.
In sandy woodlands growing in moist soils along the periphery of bogs and wetlands is a evergreen shrub in the holly family that has no thorns. It is Inkberry holly. It lives in eastern North America from Nova Scotia south to Florida where it is often found in dense colonies. Its shiny dark green leaves helps to identify it along with its green berries that turn black in the late fall.
It has become a favorite shrub for gardens because it provides color for a dull winter landscape. Beware, the berries are poisonous to people. Some wildlife and birds eat the berries in the winter when food is scarce. This shrub also provides cover for small birds in the winter woods.
When people think of holly they envision a shrub or tree with glossy green prickly leaves and bright red berries. There is a species of holly that is deciduous and loses its leaves each winter and it is called winterberry holly.
This holly has crayon green leaves and berries that are green at first, but turn a bright red color before this shrub loses its leaves. It is a tall shrub or short tree that grows in sandy wetland soils and can be found in central and eastern U.S.
Although not a favorite fruit of most birds, northern mockingbirds and cedar waxwings are two that eat the nutritious fruit in the winter. I once observed a mockingbird establish a single winterberry holly tree as its own and it chased all other birds that came near it.
Though birds are capable of eating these berries, it is poisonous to eat by humans and pets. The berries are distasteful, so even deer avoid this plant. But it is a shrub that provides a splash of color in winter woodlands and perhaps in your backyard.