Christmas Colors Found in the Winter Woods
This Thursday, at exactly 11:27 a.m., marks the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. It will be the first day of winter and the shortest day of the year in terms of sunlight.
The winter solstice is when the Earth’s axial tilt is farthest away from the sun, and the sun’s daily position in the sky is the lowest. From Thursday on the days will get longer and the sun higher in the sky. The slow countdown to spring has begun, but let’s enjoy winter first.
For me, anytime of year is a good time for a walk in the woods. However, winter can provide the chance to experience the unexpected. Here in The Last Green Valley deciduous trees dominate our forested woodlands, and this time of year they are mostly bare, providing more opportunities to witness the usually unseen.
A snow-covered forest trail gives up the tracks of previous travelers – human and animal — and the frosty imprint betrays the identity of those who passed this way before you. When I see both human and dog tracks together, it usually means someone has taken their pet for a woods ramble. However, a canine track by itself might mean an Eastern coyote or fox.
One trick in determining if it is a coyote versus a dog track is if the footprints are in a straight line with both front and hind foot directly on top of each other, which is called direct registering. Domestic dogs are double-registering and tend to leave a sloppy trail. Coyote and fox will leave a similar direct-registering track, but with coyote larger and fox smaller in size and gait than the coyote.
A winter walk can also provide the unexpected flash of color within a typically colorless winter landscape full of shades of gray, brown and white. I enjoy finding green life amid the sleeping, dead colors of winter. A cluster of deep green of Christmas fern peeking up through the snow or waving from beside a stone wall is a welcome sight.
The evergreen perennial Christmas fern gets its name because it keeps its deep green stocking-shaped fronds year-round and can even be surprisingly lush in January. They are very common to Eastern North America with stems in clumps of about 2 feet tall. You will typically find them in shady forest areas, along rocky slopes and beside stone walls.
Though it is a found mostly in the woods, Christmas fern can also be purchased at nurseries and is popular in cultivation as ornamental plants for gardens. Christmas fern is easy to grow and are also good for erosion control on steeper slopes.
I was hiking in Sprague a few weeks ago with my friend Dick Waterman and one of our volunteer rangers, JP Babineau. We came upon a beautiful shrub full of bright red berries lining long stems of the plant. We knew we had seen it before, and its name was right on the tip of our tongues, but we just couldn’t remember it. A few days later, Babineau emailed me a picture with identifying information on winterberry – a favorite shrub to brighten up a winter woods walk.
Winterberry is a member of the holly family and, despite its name, starts to display its beautiful red berries in the late fall. In The Last Green Valley and throughout Eastern North America, it will keep its berries into December. The bright red is beautiful against white snow.
The botanical name of winterberry is Ilex verticillate, but it is also commonly known as black alder and fever bush. It is typically found in wetland areas, which is where we found it on our hike. Unlike most types of holly shrubs, winterberry is deciduous, with the bright berries left behind for us to enjoy looking at after the shrub has shed its leaves. Don’t be tempted to taste the berries, however. They are poisonous to humans.
Winterberry is also a popular landscape shrub for homeowners. However, if you’re looking to purchase it at a nursery, remember the plant is dioecious, which means the male reproductive organs are in one individual plant and the female reproductive organs in another (staminate and pistillate flowers borne on different individual plants). Make sure to buy at least one male with compatible female plants to ensure your winterberry plants will fruit.
Winterberry berries provide an important early winter food source for birds and other animals, especially when food sources are getting scarce. Bluebirds, robins and cedar waxwings are a few of the bird species benefitting from winterberry. Deer, mice and racoons will also feed on the fruit.
The plant may be edible for some birds and wild animals, but its leaves are toxic to cats, dogs and horses. The berries were used by Native Americans for medicinal purposes, thus the common name of fever bush.
After the opening bell of winter rings on Thursday, find the time to get out and enjoy the cold season. Take a winter woods ramble and look for fresh tracks in newly fallen, white snow. I hope you’ll also discover the red blush of winterberry and the deep green of Christmas fern — perfect colors for the holiday season.
We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley. Nature provides a year-round gift for us to enjoy. We all can enjoy and, in our own ways, benefit from the expansive tracks of undeveloped forested land of our National Heritage Corridor. I hope you’ll join me and others as we explore our natural world and find ways to care for it, enjoy it, and work together to conserve it for future generations.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He has lived in the region for more than 30 years and can be reached at email@example.com
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