I see by the number of views that posts like this get that not everyone is interested in native evergreens but they make up a large part of the outdoors and are a pleasure to see at this time of year. I hope posts like these will show those who believe that there is nothing to see in the winter that there is indeed still a lot of nature out there to see. I thought I’d start with clubmosses, which aren’t mosses at all. They are vascular plants that don’t flower; they produce spores instead of seeds and are considered fern allies. Fossils have been found that show the lowly clubmosses once grew to 100 feet tall. But that was a very long time ago; the tree clubmoss (Lycopodium dendroideum) in the above photo is barely 3 inches high. It shows the upright yellow spore bearing strobili, sometimes called candles or clubs that give the plants their common names. The plant is also called ground-pine because of its resemblance to the pine tree.
This clubmoss strobilus is still tightly closed and hasn’t released its spores yet.
They look a bit ragged after they’ve released their spores.
Clubmoss spores have been collected and dried to make flash powder for many years. They are high in fat content and when mixed with air become highly flammable. They’ve been used in fireworks and explosives for years, and also as camera flashes before flash bulbs were invented. These days they are still used in magic acts and chemistry classes. They also repel water, so if dip your finger in a glass of water that has spores floating on it, your finger will come out dry. This photo is from the Chemical Store.
Running ground pine (Lycopodium clavatum) is another clubmoss that someone once thought looked like the tree. The “running” part of the common name comes from the way its underground stems spread (run) under the leaf mold. Other names include lamb’s tail, fox tail, wolfs claw, stag’s horn and witch meal. Native Americans used clubmosses medicinally to cure headaches and to treat urinary tract problems and diarrhea. They were also used to treat wounds and to dye fabrics. The Lycopodium part of the scientific name comes from the Greek lycos, ‘wolf’, and podus, ‘foot’, because whoever named it thought it looked like a wolf’s paw.
Fan clubmoss (Lycopodium digitatum) is one of my favorites. The plant gets its common name from the way its branches fan out in a 180 degree arc at the top of the stem. Another common name is ground cedar because of its resemblance to the cedar tree. At one time this and other clubmosses were used to make Christmas wreaths and were collected almost into oblivion, but they seem to be making a fairly good comeback. A single plant can take 20 years or more to grow from spore to maturity, so they should never be disturbed.
I don’t think many people associate ferns with winter hardiness but we do have a few that stay green all winter, like the eastern wood fern (Dryopteris marginalis) seen here. It is also called the marginal wood fern because of where its spore clusters lay in relation to the pinnule (leaf division) margins. Intermediate wood fern (Dryopteris intermedia,) Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides,) and polypody fern (Polypodium virginianum) are some of our other evergreen ferns.
Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) is one of the lowest growing evergreen plants on the forest floor, hardly growing more than 3 or 4 inches high. Plants have a vining habit but do not climb. Instead they form dense mats by spreading their trailing stems out to about a foot from the crown. Roots will often form at leaf nodes along the stems and start new plants. The 4 petaled, pinkish, fringed, fragrant, half inch long flowers appear in June and July. The berries remain on the plant for long periods unless eaten, and can often still be found the following spring. I’ve never seen a partridge eating them but I know that wild turkeys love them.
American wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) is also called teaberry or checkerberry and its small white flowers resemble those of the blueberry. It is probably the easiest of all wintergreens to identify because of the strong minty scent that comes from its crushed leaves. If you have ever tasted teaberry gum then you know exactly what it smells and tastes like. The plant contains compounds that are very similar to those found in aspirin and Native Americans used it much like we use aspirin. This photo was taken after a recent snowstorm and shows how wintergreens got their name. The small white object in front of the middle leaf is a starflower seed pod (Trientalis borealis.)
American wintergreen was the first plant my grandmother taught me to identify. Because she had trouble getting up from a kneeling position she would have me crawl around and gather up handfuls of the bright red, minty berries, which we would then share. She always called them checkerberries, but nobody seems to know where that name or the several others it has originated. The name teaberry comes from a pleasing tea that can be made from the leaves. Squirrels, chipmunks, mice, grouse, partridges, bobwhites, turkeys, fox, deer and bears eat the berries.
Though I showed it in a recent post striped wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) has my favorite wintergreen foliage so I’m going to show it again. In winter it turns deep purple where the darker green is on the leaf. This plant is rare here, though I’m finding more and more spots where 1 or 2 plants grow. In all I probably know of a dozen widely scattered plants. It’s hard to tell from a photo but these plants are so well camouflaged that I have walked right by them and not seen them.
Shinleaf (Pyrola elliptica,) another of our native wintergreens, gets its common name from the way Native Americans used it as a poultice to heal wounds; especially shin wounds, apparently. Like several other wintergreens it contains compounds similar to those in aspirin and a tea made from it was used for many of the same ailments. Its nodding white, waxy flowers are fragrant and usually appear near the end of June. I find them in sandy soiled forests under pines.
Pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata) grows in large colonies and is easy to find because of its shiny green leaves that shine winter and summer and last up to 4 years. Like other wintergreens it likes dry, sandy, undisturbed soil in pine forests. Pipsissewa was once used as a flavoring in candy and soft drinks, including root beer. Its name is fun to say. It’s a Native American Cree word meaning “It-breaks-into-small-pieces.” This is because it was used as a treatment for kidney stones and was thought to break them into pieces.
Pipsissewa and some other native wintergreens form a symbiotic relationship with the mycelium of certain fungi in the soil and are partially parasitic on them through a process called myco-heterotrophy. This means that, even though they photosynthesize, they supplement their diet with nutrients taken from fungi. That explains why they will only grow in certain places, much like native orchids. If looking for this plant look for the teeth on the outer margins of the shiny leaves.
Trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens) is also called mayflower because that’s often when its small white to pink, very fragrant flowers appear. Its oval evergreen leaves are tough and leathery and hug the ground but though it looks like a groundcover botanically speaking it has a persistent woody stem, so it is classified as a shrub. This was one of my grandmother’s favorite flowers and she would walk in the woods to find and smell it rather than dig it up to plant in her yard. It’s too bad everybody didn’t do the same because this plant was once collected into near oblivion. These days it can be found at many nurseries so there is no longer any reason to dig it up. Since it’s very fussy unless it’s given the right amount of light, water, nutrients and soil type it won’t grow except where it chooses to anyway. That’s true of most of these plants, in fact.
New goldthread (Coptis groenlandicum) leaves are a bright, glossy lime green but darken as they age and by winter will often be very dark green. They’ll hold their color under the snow all winter and look similar to wild strawberries until late April or early May when new leaves and small white flowers will appear. Goldthread gets its common name from its thread like, bright yellow roots. Native Americans used goldthread medicinally and told the early settlers of its value in treating canker sores, which led to its being nearly collected into oblivion. At one time more goldthread was sold in Boston than any other native plant, probably by its other common name: canker root. Luckily it has made a good comeback and I see lots of it.
Swamp dewberry (Rubus hispidus) is a trailing vine blooms with white flowers that look a lot like strawberry flowers. The fruit looks more like a black raspberry than anything else and is said to be very sour. Its leaves live under the snow all winter. It is thought that staying green through the winter lets evergreen plants begin photosynthesizing earlier in the spring so they get a head start over the competition.
But though swamp dewberry leaves live under the snow all winter they aren’t always green. These beautiful beet purple plants grew just a few feet away from the green ones in the previous photo. Swamp dewberry looks like a vine but is actually considered a shrub. It likes wet places and is a good indicator of wetlands. It’s also called bristly blackberry because its stem is very prickly.
Some native orchids have flowers and foliage that look tender and fragile, but as downy plantain orchids (Goodyera pubescens) show, looks can be deceiving. Its leaves are covered by soft downy hairs and this little orchid can stand being buried under snow all winter without being damaged. It’ll look just as it does now when the snow melts. I hope you’ll take some time to look at the evergreens in your own area. Don’t forget the mosses and lichens!
There is no end to wonder once one starts really looking. ~Marty Rubin
Thanks for stopping in.