The green things of winter

Published 6:15 am Tuesday, February 5, 2019

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Compared to the other seasons, winters seem pretty colorless, with the leaves off the trees and laying brown on the ground. But through closer observation you can see plants that remain green through the winter, and seeing or perhaps even identifying them can brighten up a winter hike in the woods. What follows are some of the more common green plants you will find in our area.

In the tree family the obvious green standouts are several pines species, hemlock, cedar and holly. Cedar and holly need no introduction, and hemlock is easy to identify with its short, flat needles with white lines on their backside. Pines of course have the long straw-like needles that hang onto the tree in clusters two to five needles, and their length and number per cluster help determine the species of pine.

Woody shrubs you’ll see include Rhododendron and Mountain Laurel. Both have leathery paddle shaped leaves, with Rhododendron having larger 4-8 inch leaves while Mountain Laurel are smaller (2-4 inches). Rhododendron is more likely to be in low areas along streams while laurel will be found higher on the ridges.

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Moss is often an emerald green color that really stands out on rocky sites where it likes to grow. The most common moss we have is a species of Carpet Moss. Also to be found are some moss cousins called clubmosses that often grow in colonies. One is called ground pine and does look like a micro-forest of pine trees. Ground cedar has scaly cedar-like leaves that form fan-like branchlets. Shining clubmoss forms dark green finger-shaped branches that run along the ground, but also stand upright.

The most common fern we have that stays green is Christmas fern, which forms clumps of stems (called fronds) with leaves forming featherlike along the stem. Each leaf has a small toe-like extension at its base that reminds you of a stocking, so think of a Christmas stocking and you’ll remember Christmas fern.

Several herbaceous plants are easy to find on a typical winter hike. Liverleaf (also called hepatica) forms leaves with three broad lobes, each roughly the shape of a human liver. Their leaves will often be speckled. Partridge Berry is vine-like and grows along the ground and has small, round, glossy leaves and maybe some bright red berries. Teaberry, also called Mountain Tea, is a member of the heath family and is technically a dwarf shrub, though it doesn’t look like one. It forms 3-4-inch stems with roundish leathery leaves that smell like wintergreen. It may also have red berries if they haven’t already been eaten by birds. Little Brown Jug has thick leaves shaped like arrowheads and are very aromatic when crushed. Ratsbane has leathery sharp spear-shaped leaves with a streak of white along the center vein. Puttyroot forms a long spear-shaped leaf that lays flat to the ground and has distinct white lines (veins) running parallel to each other.

Hiking in winter has its advantages: You can see further, no bugs or snakes, low humidity and days where temperatures can be adapted to with proper clothing. So get out there and look closer along the path for some of these green hold-outs.

Steve Roark is a retired area forester from Tazewell, Tennessee.