Monday, December 25, 2017

Reds and Greens in the Winter Woods

By Beth Sullivan

We are at the darkest days of the year. The woods can look pretty drab, and it even makes me appreciate just a bit of snow to brighten the scenery. But take a walk and look closely, and you will find some welcome color, red and green, to greet you for the holidays.

Some different evergreens

We all know our pines, spruce, firs, and cedars-the bigger evergreens of the woodlands. They provide great protection for birds and other small creatures when the winter winds blow and snows fall. Their cones hold nutritious seeds, high in fats and proteins that the wildlife need to help them through the cold season.

Look a little lower; the shrub layer in many of our woodlands is dominated in places by our State Flower Mountain Laurel( Kalmia latifolia). Drive along many of our roads where the scenery is rocky and rough, and you will welcome the sight of gnarled branches and leathery green leaves of this lovely shrub. While it doesn’t provide a food supply, its usefulness as nesting sites for forest birds is often revealed in winter.  
In wetlands of some of the more remote areas, our native rhododendron (R. maximum) will stand out, green against the brown. During the severe cold, you can note that rhododendron leaves droop downward and curl into tubes. This is the plants’ adaptation to protect the leaf surface from cold and dehydration in the dry winter air.   
Rhododendron leaves droop and curl in winter.

Bright winter reds

Our native hollies provide winter interest. Our native evergreen American holly, ( Ilex opaca) the familiar Christmas decoration, has spikes on the leaves to deter deer but the berries are feasted upon by many birds now and through the winter, as long as they last. Robins, Thrushes, and Bluebirds, in particular, will find a bush and claim it.
Native winter holy

Our other native holly, Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)is deciduous, but its berries glow red on bare branches during this season. These berries often do not fully ripen until they have been cold for a long time; then they actually ferment and the birds love them. This is true of many berries that remain on the bush through the winter- Viburnum and crab apple in particular. Those birds know how to wait until the vintage is perfect.

Winterberry with Mantis egg case.

Mosses for the season

Club Mosses (Lycopodium sp.), such as Princess Pine and Ground Cedar ( they have multiple common names), will populate the ground in patches. Years ago they were harvested irresponsibly for Christmas decorations and the populations were nearly decimated. Garden Clubs have protected the species by refusing to pick it or sell decorations using the club mosses.

Many other species of moss seem to become more intensely emerald at this time of year. Sphagnum moss, which holds the water in the wetlands, is more softly colored, but look closely at the structure of each plant: miniature Christmas trees.
Emerald green cushion moss brightens the landscape.

Ground Cedar is a clubmoss.

There are a few evergreen plants, still holding leaves-Christmas Fern for one, each ‘leaflet’ on a frond has a “toe” creating a “stocking”. Partridgeberry is a sweet vining plan with delicate evergreen leaves. The occasional red berry remains on the plant as an invitation to a ‘Partridge’ who may favor the berries. Sadly our native partridge or quail, the Bobwhite, is considered extirpated from Connecticut. Only to be remembered in Christmas song, being in a Pear Tree!

Happy Holidays to all and enjoy the winter woods.   

On the Christmas Fern, each leaflet has a stocking toe.

Partridge Berry.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

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