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Posts Tagged ‘Native Evergreens’

I thought I’d start this post about evergreens with something you probably don’t associate with the word, but in fact we do have a few ferns that stay green all winter and are considered evergreen. Some more common ones are the Eastern wood fern (Dryopteris marginalis), Intermediate wood fern (Dryopteris intermedia), Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), Polypody fern (Polypodium virginianum) and a few others. As this post will show, if you are willing to look closely you’ll find that there is quite a lot of green still out there in winter.

Clubmosses are one of our most noticeable evergreens in winter once it snows, but they 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. 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.

Fan shaped clubmoss (Diphasiastrum digitatum.) was once used as a Christmas decoration (and still is in some places.)  These forest floor evergreens were collected by the many thousands to make Christmas wreaths and they are still rarely seen here because of it. Clubmosses aren’t mosses at all but do produce spores and are called “fern allies,” which are vascular plants that don’t produce seeds. I think fan shaped clubmoss is the most elegant of any of the clubmosses and I’m always happy to see it, especially in winter. A single plant can take 20 years or more to grow from spore to maturity, so they should never be disturbed.

Something that is always a surprise to see in the woods here is a northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis.) I don’t know if it was a garden escapee or not but they don’t grow naturally here that I know of. The Native American Ojibwe tribe thought the trees were sacred because of their many uses. They showed 16th century French explorer Jacques Cartier how to cure scurvy with its leaves and he was so impressed that he named it Arborvitae, which is Latin for Tree of Life. He had trees with him when he returned to Europe, and that’s how Thuja occidentalis became the first North American tree to be introduced there.

Canada yew (Taxus canadensis) is native from Newfoundland west to Manitoba, south to Virginia, Tennessee, Illinois, and Iowa, but in this region I rarely see it. This plant was a small seedling barely 6 inches tall. Though all parts of the yew plant are poisonous several Native American tribes made tea from the needles to ease everything from numbness to scurvy.

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 also being nearly collected into oblivion like trailing arbutus and others. At one time more goldthread was sold in Boston than any other native plant. It has made a good comeback now and I see lots of it.

Usually when I do an evergreen post in winter I don’t show the flowers but that leaves me feeling like I’ve cheated you, so this time I’ll show you the flowers. All the flower photos were taken previously, of course. I like the tiny styles curved like long necked birds and the even smaller white tipped stamens on a goldthread blossom. The white, petal like sepals last only a short time and will fall off, leaving the tiny golden yellow club like petals behind. The ends of the petals are cup shaped and hold nectar, but it must be a very small insect that sips from that cup. 

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 plant was once collected into near oblivion but 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 many of these native evergreens, in fact.

The reason trailing arbutus was collected so much was because of its small pink to white, very fragrant flowers. My grandmother loved this plant and she always wanted to show it to me but we could never find it back then. I see it now here and there.

Swamp dewberry (Rubus hispidus) is a trailing plant with fruit like a black raspberry and its stems are every bit as prickly. It also looks a lot like a strawberry when it’s in bloom and because of its strawberry like leaves, which stay green under the snow all winter. This is a plant that can trip you up when hidden by snow.

Swamp dewberry’s flower is quite pretty but its fruit is said to be sour and that is the reason it isn’t cultivated. Native Americans had many medicinal uses for this plant, including treating coughs, fever and consumption. Swamp dewberry, as its name implies, is a good indicator of a wetland or moist soil that doesn’t dry out.

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.

I think I actually gasped the first time I found this large colony of pipsissewa in bloom. I remember kneeling there admiring the rare and beautiful sight for quite some time. It is things like this that keep me wandering through the woods, never knowing what I might stumble across.

Pipsissewa flowers often show a blush of pink. Five petals and ten chubby anthers surrounding a plump center pistil make it prettier than most of our other native wintergreens. 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.

The pretty little seedpods of pipsissewa persist through the winter and poke up out of the snow. They are woody and split open into 5 parts to release the tiny seeds. Each capsule is about a quarter inch across. They remind me of the seedpods of the Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora,) in some ways.

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.

Shinleaf’s nodding white, waxy flowers are fragrant and usually appear near the end of June or into July. I find them in sandy soiled forests under pines.

American wintergreen is probably the easiest of all the forest floor evergreens to identify because it is so common. It is also called teaberry, and that name comes from a pleasing tea that can be made from the leaves. The leaves contain compounds similar to those found in aspirin though, so anyone allergic to aspirin should leave them alone. Though it looks like a groundcover botanically speaking it has a persistent woody stem, so it is classified as a shrub. 

American wintergreen’s blossoms look a lot like tiny blueberry blossoms.

Squirrels, chipmunks, mice, grouse, partridges, bobwhites, turkeys, fox, deer and bears eat the berries. If you’re really lucky you might get to eat a small handful before the critters find them. They were one of the first wild fruits I ever ate and I still remember what they taste like; Clark’s Teaberry Gum.

Striped wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) loses its chlorophyll and turns deep purple in winter but as of this photo it hadn’t happened to this plant yet. This plant is relatively rare here and though I’m finding small numbers most of them flower but don’t set seed.  The Chimaphila part of the scientific name is from the Greek cheima (winter) and philein (to love,) so it loves winter and does not die from the cold.

The flowers of striped wintergreen stand out and help me locate the well camouflaged plants, so I begin looking for them in mid-July just as shinleaf is ending its bloom period.

The flower of striped wintergreen has 5 petals that are swept back, as if it had seen a strong wind. It also has 10 anthers but its style is very blunt. I’m hoping the small fly on the blossom was pollinating this plant.

Leatherleaf is a knee high shrub that gets its common name from its tough, leathery leaves, which are lighter and scaly on their undersides and turn purple in the winter. Florists use sprays of leatherleaf leaves as filler in bouquets. 

At a glance you might mistake leatherleaf  for a blueberry but this plant will grow in standing water and blooms earlier. Native Americans used the plant medicinally to treat fevers, headaches and inflammation but it is said that the leaves contain a toxin called andromedotoxin which is released when they’re heated so they’re probably best left alone.

Well, if nothing else I hope this post has expanded your idea of what an evergreen is. Though many of us think of trees like the young spruce in the above photo when we hear the word evergreen the list of plants that can be called evergreen is quite long and involves many species. We even have evergreen orchids.

It is only in winter that the pine and cypress are known to be evergreens. ~Confucius

Thanks for coming by.

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When I was a boy my grandmother often took me walking through the woods to teach me what she knew about wild plants. One of the first plants I remember getting to know is the Eastern teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens,) also known as checkerberry or American wintergreen. My grandmother and I would pick the small red berries from the plant she always called checkerberry until we each had a handful, and then we would have a refreshing, spicy feast in the forest. Chewing the leaves can also be refreshing when hiking on a hot day. In the past, the leaves were also chewed to relieve pain.

A while ago I noticed a familiar looking plant at the edge of the forest. When I picked a leaf and crushed it between my fingers I smelled that unmistakable wintergreen fragrance and knew it was teaberry. Teaberry won’t be found in deep shade where clubmosses grow; they usually grow at the edge of forests, and only those plants getting the most sun will have berries.

 

Teaberry is a ground hugger that will usually form large colonies using long underground stems (rhizomes). The plant also reproduces by seeds that birds help scatter. Though it seems to have a groundcover habit it is actually classified as a small shrub. The leaves are deep green, oval, very shiny, leathery and relatively thick. The red berries appear after small white, bell shaped flowers in summer but may often still be found on the plant the following spring. They are quite small so you have to have good eyesight to find them. The plant is a true evergreen, which is why it is called wintergreen. Many animals, from foxes to chipmunks and birds including grouse and pheasant rely on the berries to help them get through the winter. Wintergreen oil has been used medicinally for centuries, and the leaves make an excellent, soothing tea. Plants are usually found at the edge of evergreen forests growing in acidic, well drained, moist soil. There is a variety available commercially called Gaultheria procumbens “Very Berry” that can be successfully grown in a pot and brought indoors in winter.

 

If you find what you think might be teaberry plants, do not eat the berries unless the crushed leaves smell heavily of oil of wintergreen. The fragrance of the oil is unmistakable and you should recognize it immediately because it is used in toothpaste, mouthwash, pain relievers, etc. If you search for plants but don’t find any, a good substitute until you do is Clark’s Teaberry Gum, which tastes just like wild tea berry, and is something I chewed a lot of as a boy. 

One final note: Oil of wintergreen is astringent and can be irritating to some. If you are allergic to aspirin you should not eat the berries, leaves or any teas or other preparations made from this plant because it contains compounds very similar to those found in aspirin.

 

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