Previous Post in this series: Nature in Winter – Snow.
In keeping with the Nature in Winter theme, let’s look at something that most people never think about in this cold season- wildflowers. Perhaps a better name to use for them this season is winter weeds, because there are few flowers in sight.
Much of the information in this post I learned from that wonderful book that I talked about at the beginning of this series- A Guide to Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes.
Certainly most of the winter weeds you see are the brown husks of last year’s growing and flowering plants. This has been a trend since autumn.
Don’t let this appearance fool you. Dried-out and lacking green color doesn’t mean completely dead. Seeds on the plant are alive, and some plants have living roots down below the ground, awaiting warmer weather to grow again.
As a matter of fact, it’s a good idea to think of these ‘dead winter weeds’ as seed-delivery mechanisms. Some species use airborne methods to disperse seeds, others use sticky hooks to hitch a ride on animals to transport them. Many winter birds eat these seeds, and some pass through them intact to grow in a different area. We tend to think of the flower as being the essence of a plant, but when you think about it, a flower is a seed’s way to propagate more seeds…I guess it depends on how you look at it!
Goldenrod has a more subdued beauty in this season. It is no longer golden yellow, but its fuzzy seeds add a scenic attraction to cold weather strolls.
Asters also retain fuzzy seeds for a while, and can be found in dense groups. Much like Goldenrod, these plants put more energy into having many smaller flowers in bunches which make it easy for insects to pollinate many flowers per visit. This is a different strategy than flowers that have one or a small number of large flowers.
Queen Anne’s Lace, also known as Wild Carrot. Note the classic curled-up ‘bird’s nest’ shape of the former flowers, which hold the seeds. This plant is an example of seeds that spread by sticking to animals as they brush against them.
Teasel carries its seeds in the spiny head where its flowers once grew.
Milkweed is a classic airborne seed disperser, now that it’s large blooms are gone.
Evening Primrose has distinctive seed pods that peel back in 4 parts to expose rows of small seeds. Sometimes insect larvae get in these seed containers and spend the winter there (a not uncommon occurrence with other plants as well). In winter, these plants are as distinctive as they are when their light yellow flowers are in bloom.
This is a Common Mullein, with its seeds contained in the tall terminal spike. Goldfinches love these.
These appear to be some kind of coneflower.
Sometimes seeds are encased in fruit, otherwise known as berries. Berries are popular for animals and birds to eat, and the seeds get excreted in a different area to grow anew. This particular berry appeared in a post I did last year entitled Autumn Berries. At the time I wasn’t sure what it was, but I can say now that this is a berry from a Horse Nettle, a short plant with modest white or light purple flowers.
Interestingly enough, not all plants are brown and dried out in winter. In addition to the aforementioned living roots beneath the ground, there are also leaves that are green in the cold weather, waiting for spring or summer to start producing stalks and flowers.
Here are some examples I’ve run across recently.
This is Bitterroot, an early bloomer.
These almost felt-like leaves are the basal rosette of Common Mullein.
I believe this is Stonecrop. It can grow in bare tough areas, such as this beach at a reservoir.
Finally, you may even run across one of the small amount of wildflowers that bloom in winter. Most plants do not follow this strategy, but it is rather heartening to see them this season. Some are simply hanging on longer than normal. I posted about late bloomers 2 Decembers ago.
You can often see a small amount of Dandelions still persisting into the cold weather.
This Fleabane (I think) was still blooming 2 days ago- most of its brethren are brown and withered. Hanging in there!
I’m not sure what the flower on the left is.
There’s Pepperweed blooming here.
This Sowthistle is wilted but still blooming.
Soon enough, late February will arrive, a time in central Ohio when one can often see the first wildflowers of swiftly-approaching spring appearing. It’ll happen sooner than you think. But in the meantime, there are hints and signs of things to come.