By Beth Sullivan
This time of year can be pretty bleak, especially if there is no snowfall to brighten up the gray landscape.
The most widespread woodlands have been pretty colorless. Only a few fluttering beige beech leaves remain. The best place to find some green is to find a conifer forest with some pine trees or hemlocks to break up the scenery.
Snow can actually be essential to the survival of many organisms. With a normal snow cover, the ground remains somewhat insulated. Hard to believe, but remaining at a steady freezing 32 degrees is perfect for protecting plants, root systems, seeds, and seedlings, and even providing ‘warm’ safe passage for small mammals. Keeping the ground temperature stable also assures that the soil is not continually freezing and thawing causing upheaval and exposure all winter long. When we have sub zero temps for extended periods, and no snow cover, the ground surface freezes more deeply and solidly. But with temperature fluctuations as we have seen, a hard freeze may be followed quickly by a warm up, and changes in the soil moisture and texture create havoc for anything living or trying to live in those top inches of leaf litter or soil.
Green all year
There a number of organisms that stay evergreen through the coldest seasons, and most of us immediately think of trees and shrubs that we recognize pretty easily: pines and hemlocks, spruces and firs, laurels and hollies. These are all true vascular plants.
But lack of snow cover invites a closer inspection, and the ability to observe some gems that are often overlooked during the lush greenness of spring and summer. This is the world of mosses, liverworts, and hornworts. They are hardy and can survive with or without snow cover in some of the most challenging conditions.
Most of us recognize mosses of so many varied textures. They remain green all year and inhabit a great variety of conditions. Most seem to like it moist and shady, but there are others that we can discover on bald rock faces, in places where just enough soil has built up to allow them to get the moisture they need. Mosses are, however, non-vascular plants. This simply means that they do not have the same internal structures that most plants do, to transport food, nutrients and water. They have no true roots, leaves, flowers, or seeds. Some mosses are dense cushions of green, soft to touch, and a startling color in the brown and gray leaves. Some are fuzzy, some spikey. Many display their spore cases on longer stalks still visible and held above the main portion of the plant. Clubmosses can look like individual mini Christmas trees, and the two most well known we call princess pine or running ground cedar.
Keep looking. Get down closer to the ground in wet areas, bases of rocks, and old wet stumps. Here you may find a couple of very strange organisms. They look like tiny, flattened, fleshy leaves or even ribbons of green, with spikes or horns rising above. These are the liverworts and hornworts. Botanists continue to change classifications and naming of these odd species. They are plants, they contain chlorophyll and they make their own food. But, like mosses, they are non-vascular and have very different reproductive processes. These plants were among the very first to come out of the water and colonize the drier earth. They are ancient. They are gems. They are worth getting close to, getting out a magnifying glass or your macro lens, and really examining. These plants inhabit all the climate zones on earth, from tropics to tundra. They provide moisture in dry places, cover for small organisms, and even food sources for others. Interestingly, I often find them colonizing the surface soil on potted plants I find at nurseries that have had them growing in damp, warm greenhouses.
The collection of photos here were taken by Carl Tjerandsen and his team on Avalonia’s Tri Town Forest Preserve. Some plants are named, others are yet to be identified. Botanists, naturalists, and photographers have been combing this huge, beautiful preserve for the last several years. They are exploring the unique habitats and the flora and fauna associated there. Check our website Preserves section to see more photos of this beautiful acquisition: https://avalonia.org/tritown-forest/ . It may be hard to see past the dull colors of a snowless woodland, but look closely and you will find green in beautiful hues and unusual forms.
Avalonia protects unique properties with varied habitats such as this one. We can continue our mission to preserve these places and open them to you and future generations, but we can only do so with your support. If it matters to you, please support us with your membership and join us in our efforts.