My annual walk through a winter woods… — 2017-02-12

This is supposed to be mid-winter, but it’s 80 degrees F (27 degrees C) outside! The plants still seem to be in winter mode though, and that is good because I suspect we do have a bit of cold weather ahead of us. We always have at least a couple of days of freezing temperatures in mid-April. But today’s walk is pretty much all about green. In our portion of the Southern Appalachian Mountains, there are a number of “evergreen” plants/trees whose leaves make them much easier to spot in the woods’ otherwise drab winter garb.

I did run across a single flowering plant, Erythronium umbilicatum or Dimpled Trout Lily. I figured some of them might be in bloom although it was just a bit early. Here is that little yellow beauty:

Dimpled Trout Lily.
Dimpled Trout Lily

As I have stated several times before, I really like the coloration of the leaves. But it is a bit difficult to get good focus on the surface of a leaf due to the fuzzy, mottled color which is supposed to resemble the color of one of our local trout species. Here are a few images of just the leaves of this species:

Dimpled Trout Lily leaves

Dimpled Trout Lily leaves

The image above reveals something I see a lot especially in Trillium locations: a plant which has sprouted up through a dead leaf. In this case, a Dimpled Trout Lily leaf which has penetrated the fallen leaf of an Acer rubrum or Red Maple. If you know me well, you also know that I “rescue” such trapped plants by removing the dead leaf. It’s just my nature…

Dimpled Trout Lily leaves

The fallen leaf litter is dotted here and there by some rather interesting, heart-shaped leaves. In this case, they belong to Hexastylis heterophylla or Variable-leaf Heartleaf sometimes known as Wild Ginger (although the true Wild Ginger belongs to another genus, entirely). The species epithet is heterophylla which means differently leaved, referring to the different patterns (or lack thereof) on the leaves of plants in the same population. Here is a sample of two leaf patterns on different plants next to each other:

Variable-leaf Heartleaf Variable-leaf Heartleaf

This is what the ground-hugging flowers of this plant look like in Spring:

Hexastylis heterophylla flowers

Walking down the trail, I spot a small Tsuga canadensis or Canadian Hemlock also known as Eastern Hemlock:

Eastern Hemlock or Canadian Hemlock

This species used to be the mainstay of our Southern Appalachian forests until a tiny critter known as Adelges tsugae or Hemlock Wooly Adelgid came along. Here is an image of one of the branches of a larger Canadian Hemlock that has become infested with the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid:

Hemlock infested with Hemlock Wooly Adelgid

This is a tree species which plays a vital role in the forests of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. According to the US Forest Service, “Because of its dense evergreen foliage and dominance in riparian and cove habitats, eastern hemlock plays an important role in the area’s water cycle, regulating stream flow year round. The loss of hemlock from southern Appalachian forests can be compared to the loss of American chestnut from eastern forests, which became functionally extinct after the introduction of an exotic fungus in the early 20th century. Changes in local forest hydrology from the loss of eastern hemlock will largely depend on which species replace it.

“Rhododendron, a woody evergreen shrub common in Southern Appalachian forests, is one of the species replacing eastern hemlock trees. Although rhododendron is evergreen, it has lower leaf area than hemlock, and thus transpiration in rhododendron-dominated forest stands is lower than in previously healthy-healthy hemlock forests. Most of the other species replacing eastern hemlock trees are deciduous, such as sweet birch, which unlike the evergreen rhododendron and eastern hemlock, do not transpire during the winter. Sweet birch trees also have a much higher transpiration rate than eastern hemlock trees during the growing season.” It also keeps our trout streams cool by providing requite shade.

Here are two additional close-up shots of the “wool” that the tiny critter spins for protective insulation. The actual, beetle-like insect is no larger than the head of a pin:

Canadian Hemlock infested with Hemlock Wooly Adelgid Canadian Hemlock infested with Hemlock Wooly Adelgid

Unfortunately, almost all of the mature, 100-foot (30-meter) trees are dead, leaving only the very young trees to take their place. The outlook for these young trees is bleak. There is a beetle that dines on Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, but the introduction of tens of thousands of these beetles in an experimental eradication process has proven to have little but local success. To provide enough beetles for the entire Southern Appalachian region is quite out of the question. Inoculation of living trees with a systemic pesticide has been very successful, but it must be done one tree at a time — no expectation that this could be done with an entire regional forest. It remains to be seen if a positive, workable solution can be found before all of the Canadian Hemlock trees are just a memory…

I didn’t expect to spend so much time on a this tree species, but it is what it is. Again, it is a very important player in the forests of the Southern Appalachian Mountains and one of my favorite tree species.

One of the other trees I saw on my walk is Pinus virginiana or Virginia Pine. It is a species that one sees frequently in the forest. Here is a shot of the needles of this species:

Virginia pine

Each fascicle or needle bundle has two relatively short needles, and there are tons of pine cones on mature individuals of this species.

Another frequently seen tree is Juniperus virginiana or Eastern Red Cedar. Many of the early settlers, especially in the Piedmont of the Carolinas, used this tree species as Christmas trees, and they used the branches in making wreathes. The aromatic wood is often used to line clothes chests. According to Martha Stewart, “The dark-colored heartwood of red cedar contains natural oils that kill clothes-moth larvae, but this alone won’t protect clothing. It’s not effective against carpet beetles, and, with moths, it kills only young larvae, not older ones or eggs. The effect also fades as the scent does.”

Eastern Red Cedar Eastern Red Cedar

Nearby, is the easily recognizable, Ilex opaca or American Holly with its barbed leaves. The female version of this tree is especially recognizable with its clusters of bright red berries — the male version has no berries. All I managed to find on this trip were male trees:

American Holly American Holly

No mention of the forests of the Southern Appalachian Mountains can be made without including Kalmia latifolia or Mountain Laurel. Most of the mountainous hillsides in our region are covered from top to bottom with these slow-growing, evergreen plants. The glossy green leaves of these large shrubs provide shade in the forest. Here is a small clump of them standing alone in the open woods:

Mountain Laurel

This time of the year, all that remains of its garlands of flowers is seed capsules:

Seed capsules of Mountain Laurel

In the Spring, these plants produce drifts of white to pink, bell-shaped flowers:

Mountain Laurel flowers

For the uninitiated, this species is confused with another frequently seen large shrub species, Rhododendron maximum or Rose Bay Rhododendron. The large, leathery leaves of Rose Bay Rhododendron often appear to droop in the winter, especially in very cold weather. When in flower, though, there is no confusing it with any other species:

Rose Bay Rhododendron

Rose Bay Rhododendron

On this trip, however, just the leaves and flower buds, holding tight for Spring, are showing:

Rose Bay Rhododendron flower bud

Back down to ground level, I spot the winter leaves of two of our native orchid species. The first of these is Goodyera pubescens or Downy Rattlesnake Plantain orchid. In my opinion, the leaves of this orchid species are the loveliest of all of them:

Downy Rattlesnake Plantain orchid

Here is what the flowers look like:

Downy Rattlesnake Plantain orchid Downy Rattlesnake Plantain orchid

Only recently, did I hear a reasonable explanation of the common name, Rattlesnake Plantain. It seems as though the stem and seed capsules look a bit like the tail (rattles) of the Rattlesnake. And when the stem and seed capsules are shaken, they make a noise similar to that of the Rattlesnake. There you have it…

The second of the native orchids I spotted is the relatively common, Tipularia discolor or Crane-fly orchid. Its single, green-topped leaf (magenta-purple underneath) is most evident in the winter when it pops above ground to get the little bit of sunlight that filters through the bare branches of the winter woods. Here are just a couple of the many leaves of this orchid species that I saw on this trip:

Leaves of the Crane-fly orchid

Naturally, it got its common name from the resemblance of its flowers to the Crane fly — a large, mosquito-like insect. Here are some pictures of its oddly-shaped flowers which bloom in mid-July:

Crane-fly orchid Crane-fly orchid

In the damper portions of the forest, especially near streams and boggy areas, Leucothoe fontanesiana or Dog Hobble becomes quite evident. I believe it got its common name due to the fact that not only dogs, but also people are hobbled if they attempt to walk through thickets of this species. Here is one of many hundreds of large clumps of 4-foot (1.2 meter) tall, sprawling reddish stems of this plant:

Dog Hobble thicket

However onerous this species happens to be, in early May, it does have one redeeming feature — its flowers:

Dog Hobble

The next specimen is not green, at all, but it holds the promise of a gorgeous set of leaves and sweet-smelling flowers. It is the seed capsules and flower buds of Rhododendron periclymenoides or Pinxter Azalea. It was, at one time, known as Rhododendron nudiflorum:

Pinxter Azalea seed capsules and flower buds

It is more easily recognized when it shows its lovely pink flowers:

Pinxter Azalea

It’s sort of hard for me to grasp the fact that those flowers and leaves grow out of that tiny bud at the end of the stem…

Sticking with Azaleas, one other beauty is found in damp areas next to streams. It is the Rhododendron arborescens or Smooth Azalea:

Flower bud of Smooth Azalea

It can be identified by its white flowers with very strong fragrance as well as its red stamen filaments and pistol:

Smooth Azalea

Finally, I leave you with one of our native ferns which stays green, even in the midst of Winter. It is Polystichum acrostichoides or Christmas Fern:

Christmas Fern

There is much, much more to show you, but not enough time — especially the myriad mosses and lichens that were everywhere. The woods are alive with energy, even in the gray, somber dead of winter. Some of this energy is evident while some of it is pent-up, just waiting for Spring. I hope you get the chance to take a walk through a nearby winter woods and have the pleasure of enjoying its quiet and serene natural beauty…

–Jim

8 comments


  • Deloris Smith

    Beautiful photos and well written descriptions.

    February 13, 2017
  • sonnia hill

    Just marvelous. I love your fruit photos, buds, leaves, of future beauties. Nice to see what the flowers will be in the Spring.

    February 13, 2017
  • Linda

    Ah, you have whetted our appetites for adventures to come! Thanks for taking your readers on another delightful stroll.

    February 13, 2017
  • Jen Mod.

    Happy to see you are back! We went on a walk at Eno River State Park yesterday. Our 3yo (Nico) christened trout lily with a new name: banana flower. Maybe we can ask him to come up with a new name for rattlesnake plantain too….maybe it would even be banana-related!!! 😉

    February 13, 2017
  • Tony willis

    Great start to the year. Feels as though spring is on its way

    February 14, 2017
  • Sandy

    Oh, Jim…just beautiful and so interesting. Thank you for all these wonderful early native plant photos!

    February 14, 2017
  • Wonderful post. Looking forward to your chronicling of the coming spring! Things are crazy early here (some species 3-4 weeks earlier than normal).

    February 14, 2017
  • Valerie

    Thanks for sharing, so much to learn!

    February 16, 2017

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