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.
Winter is fast approaching and many birds are preparing for its arrival. Many song birds have already started their journey to the southern U.S., Central and South America where insects abound.
The birds that remain behind to face the winter must bulk up on as many seeds as they can find to form a fat layer to keep warm. Goldfinches gobble thistle seeds, cone flower seeds and wild grass seeds for stored energy.
One of the most interesting ways goldfinches prepare for the winter is to replace their golden feathers with gray feathers. This helps them blend in with the gray winter woods. If you examine the pictures closely, you can see the beginnings of the gray feathers. By winter they change from a golden yellow to a drab gray.
One of the goldfinches’ favorite food is thistle seed that you can purchase and put in thistle feeders in your backyard. You may even attract house and purple finches as well. This will help them survive the brutal winter temperatures and snow covered ground that cuts food off to them.
It is late October and woodlands and the colorful autumn leaves are littering the ground. The woodlands are beginning to look barren as winter approaches. It is at this time that a shrub blooms providing some color to the barren landscape. It has many small spindly yellow flowers on branches devoid of leaves. It is witch hazel.
This large shrub grows where there is acidic, sandy soils in the eastern U.S. from Maine to Florida. It is a food plant of the spring azure butterfly and birds eat the seed capsules produced by the flower.
Native Americans used a forked branch of this plant as a divining rod to find underground water. Its twigs and branches were boiled to make a medicinal brew called witch hazel which was used for several ailments.
Its flowers are a welcome sight in the late fall landscape, but it is a harbinger of the arrival of winter with cold temperatures and snow.
One of the most beautiful things to see in fall wetlands is the orange-red colors of autumn leaves from the red maple tree. This tree’s buds and flowers are red, its two-winged sumara are red tinged and it has red petioles. Red maple is also called swamp maple because it grows in wet woodlands and freshwater wetlands from the mid-west to the east coast. On New York’s Long Island it often grows alongside tupelo trees that also thrive in wetlands.
Asters are a family of plants that give color to fall landscapes in fields and meadows. These flowers are often white or various shades of blue and purple. The Maryland golden aster stands out from the rest due to its golden yellow daisy like blossoms.
This aster thrives in well drained sandy soils in the eastern U.S. and like other asters, insects are attracted to its nectar and pollen. Because of its bright color, it is one of my favorite asters.