Nature Notes

Winter Delights

By Greg Lecker

What a pleasant spell of warmth tucked between frigid cold and an upcoming forecast snow!  I need no gloves; and I am more than comfortable in my heavy coat.  The rising sun has just disappeared behind a dome of overcast gray and white.  I can just make out the red barn on the horizon.

Sunrise and Red BarnSunrise and Red Barn

Turkeys gobble from afar.  Several birds glide away from me as I enter the woodland.

Turkey TrotTurkey Trot

A saturated earth orange stained woodland pool delights me.  The dye source is tannin – a yellow or brownish organic substance released by barks, leaves, and other plant tissues such as fruit skins.Tannins add bitterness and astringency to wine, tea.

Tannins DelightTannins Delight

Paths are clear – some are even dry!  Here and there, a small frozen puddle of runoff is etched with ice crystals.

Ice EtchingIce Etching

I exit the woodland and return via Three Mile Drive through the maple woodland.  My sight is caught by a patch of green between tree trunk and retreating snow.  Moss is far more than mere “decoration” in the woods – not just the “carpet” of the forest floor.

Moss - more than meets the eyeMoss – more than meets the eye

Moss is one of the most primitive of land plants – a “step” above water-dwelling algae.  Mosses form a “bridge” between water and land.   Mosses do not have roots but rather tiny hair-like anchoring structures called rhizoids that attach them to soil, rock, or tree bark.  Without granting mosses roots, nature has conferred upon mosses the ability to survive long dry periods better than most higher plants.  Mosses act as sponges – wicking moisture across many small open spaces between small leaves.

Mosses and water share a close relationship.  In a forest, little rain that falls directly reaches the ground.  Plant leaves and twigs and bark intercepts rain drops.  Rain running over surfaces collects sediments and nutrients that eventually reach the forest floor and feed tree roots in the soil.  Mosses slow down the flow of water whether across surfaces of the tree bark or along the soil itself.  Mosses keep the soil moist for the trees and for other plants.  The more mosses, the greater the humidity…the more humidity, the more mosses.

Though mosses are not eaten – at least not by humans (mosses are bitter and gritty), human uses of mosses have included:  “chinking” to fill gaps between logs in log cabins; absorbent and cushion material in bandages, bedding, moccasins; decoration for natural crafts; and lamp wicks and scrubbing “sponges”.

Nature – so much more than meets the eye!

Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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