Nature Notes

Splashes of Color on the Wood Duck Trail

By Holly Einess

A quick look at the Arboretum’s visitor brochure shows a number of trails I have yet to explore. The Wood Duck Trail, easily accessed just outside Oswald Visitor Center, invites me in. Criss-crossed vintage snowshoes hang on the sign at the trail’s entrance; footprints in the thin layer of snow let me know that my boots will be adequate for today.

I set off down a hill and soon come to a wetland winterscape, dry brown grasses rustling in the light breeze and cattails bursting with fluff. The overt abundance of life and color in spring, summer, and fall is largely absent now; I’m going to need to pay close attention to find signs of life and color in this nearly monochromatic landscape.

Wood Duck TrailWood Duck Trail

My resolve is soon rewarded as I spot several stands of red osier dogwood. A common wetland shrub native to MN, its branches turn from reddish-green in summer to red in fall, their color intensifying throughout winter.

Red osier dogwoodRed osier dogwood branches with gray lenticels (pores)

As I leave the open wetland and enter the forest, mosses catch my eye as they hug the bases of tree trunks, their green especially bright in contrast to the dark bark and white snow. On a tree stump turkey tails cling—not the bird variety, rather the fungal. It’s the job of this bracket (or shelf) fungus to break down cellulose in rotting wood. It also happens to have medicinal properties shown to both prevent and fight cancer.

Turkey tail fungusTurkey tail fungus

Dogwood branches and mosses aren’t the only things providing color in the landscape. On the bark of many trees are splotches of green, gray, and yellow-gold lichens. I’m puzzled by what appear to be splashes of white paint on other tree trunks. A little research solves the mystery–whitewash lichen. A lichen is a combination of fungi and algae living together in a symbiotic (mutually enhancing) relationship. The algae, having chlorophyll, produce the food, while the fungi provide structure. The vast majority of lichens do no harm to trees, and are indicators of air quality; the cleaner the air, the more lichens thrive.

Whitewash lichenWhitewash lichen

Arriving back at the visitor center I decide to check out the bird feeders. There’s a flurry of activity, with chickadees, blue jays, cardinals, goldfinches, and a red-bellied woodpecker partaking of the easily accessed food. Hungry myself, I head home, already anticipating which trail I’ll take next time I visit.

Red-bellied woodpeckerRed-bellied woodpecker

Holly Einess is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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