Blogs by Hilary Hopkins

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Winter Walking Part 1: Some Plants

January 12, 2014 / Winter Walking Part 1: Some Plants

I thought to treat myself to a winter walk in the small Audubon sanctuary where I used to work.  Even though it’s small, the sanctuary has several kinds of habitats: a pond, a couple of meadows, some woods.  And in the spring, there’s a vernal pool, but that is a subject for a few months from now.

When I got to the sanctuary, I discovered that this morning’s light snow covered a lot of ice, on the trails, so I had to pick my way very carefully, lest I fall.  That was good, because it meant I got to go very, very slowly, and so I could see more. 

One of my favorite trees is seen in its winter mode in the image at the top of this post: American Beech.  Beech is one of the few deciduous trees, which, like oaks, does not drop all of its leaves in the fall.  Instead, a few hang on, desiccated, like the lovely pale ones you see above, and they add a flash and flutter of warm color in the winter forest.  I love the beech buds, too.  See them in the picture?  Those slender, elegant russet arrows will burst their coverings in the spring and the fuzzy baby leaves will unfurl—but that is a subject for a few months from now, too.

The most important winter threat to plants is not so much the cold, but the dryness.  Water is frozen and therefore inaccessible, and dry, strong winter winds dry out plant tissues.  Both deciduous and evergreen plants have adaptations to meet this challenge.

Evergreens can photosynthesize at all seasons of the year, so they don’t need to use a lot of energy in the spring to make new leaves.  Their leaves are often waxy or leathery to counteract drying, or they may be “furry” for the same reason, or curled over to conserve moisture.  The leaves of a little evergreen magnolia tree, seen to the left, are both waxy and leathery, and they hang down so as not to expose much surface to the wind. 

 

Deciduous trees, on the other hand, store large amounts of sugars in their roots and are ready to begin growing as soon as the spring light arrives.  They form buds for next year’s leaves and flowers in the summer, and protect these with scales or furry coatings, to keep them moist and viable over the winter.  They have no leaves hanging out in the drying winter winds, and therefore don’t have to expend energy maintaining these leaves during the winter.   And other plants die off completely above ground, but keep their roots safe in the earth, protected from winter’s blasts, like wonderful meadow grasses.

At the right you can see the flower of a magnolia bush, which I opened up to show.  It’s been there since summer, snug in its furry coating. 

Inching my careful way along the icy trail, I come on one of my favorite plants.  It’s got a fabulous name: Enchanter’s Nightshade.  Wow.  However, in the summer when it is blooming its weeny little white flowers are absolutely nondescript—not very enchanting—and it is not actually in the nightshade family.  But!  Below at left you can see its marvelous little Velcro-covered seeds.  Their tiny hooks will transfer instantly to whatever brushes up against them—dog, person, rabbit or whatever—and thus be carried to a new home for their spring sprouting. 

Over by the frozen pond, something brilliant catches my eye.  Bursting from a fallen log, it’s Orange Jelly, a gorgeous fungus.  Now, I am including it in this post about plants, but fungus is neither a plant nor an animal, but shares qualities of each, and in biology it has its own kingdom.  The Orange Jelly, like other fungi, absorbs nutrients from dead or decaying stuff (the log it’s on, in this case), and needs oxygen to process this food.   Some books I looked at said this Orange Jelly was edible, but that first, don’t eat anything you find in the woods, and second, it doesn’t taste like much anyway.  Some books call it Witches’ Butter. 

 

 

After a couple of hours, I finished my walk.  I lay down next to the trail and took this picture.  People don’t LOOK UP enough!  Next time you are outdoors, lie down and look up,ok?

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