Monday, January 18, 2021

Looking for Color in Winter by Beth Sullivan


A few deep blue berries on greenbriar are welcomed by birds.

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.

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.

Mountain laurel thickets keep us green all winter.

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, the usefulness as nesting sites for forest birds is often revealed in winter.  (Tefftweald in North Stonington, Hoffman Preserve in Stonington)

Wintergreen holly loses its leaves
and the berries are standouts! 

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  through the winter, as long as they last. Robins, Thrushes, Cedar Waxwings and Bluebirds in particular will find a bush and claim it!

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!

Look in the most tangled thickets to find dark blue or purple berries of viburnum, greenbrier and Virginia creeper. All of these are sought after by birds.  At Knox Preserve the field cedars/junipers have blue fruits prized by many birds through the winter.

Club moss emerges
above the snow.
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 species of true mosses seem to become more intensely emerald at this time of year.  Others take on softer tones. They are all welcome sights amid the brown and grays on the ground. They are especially lovely peeking through the snow. 

Partridge berry hugs the ground.
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!

Many people truly look forward to the pure and dazzling white of a pristine snowfall.  But, since we haven’t had but one this season, enjoy finding bits of color on your woodland walks.

A Cedar Wax-wing knows when the berries
are at the peak of their sugar content.

The brightest emerald in the woods!

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