By Greg Lecker
The winter palette is simple: tints of blue, violet and white; and shades of black, brown and dark green. During winter, one appreciates the structure of trees, now that green leaves no longer distract from the overall form of plants.
When one looks at a nature field guide and sees black line diagrams of tree branching and flower structures, it’s as if we are seeing these forms in stark contrast against the white snow.
In the wildflower garden, I spot tall thin knobby spikes of seed heads on stiff wiry stems. It is black cohosh.
Blooming in summer in the edge of the woodland, black cohosh bears tall white flower spikes that reach nearly 5’ above the ground, atop astilbe-like thrice-compound divided foliage. The flower spikes taper towards the top trailing towards almost a mist – atop a candle-like taper.
Many trees also bear fruits that persist during winter. Besides berries and crabapples, there are seed capsules like bladdernut fruit, fail-safe identification for its tree.
The fruits are three-lobed, inflated bladder-like capsules. These drooping bladder-like seed capsules are papery enclosures, green ripening to brown and opening at the tip, to reveal a few shiny yellow-brown seeds.
I mentioned earlier that green leaves no longer distract from plant structure during winter. That’s not completely accurate. First, there are deciduous trees – oaks, for example – that retain their leaves even after the foliage turns brown. And, of course, evergreen conifers (cone-bearing trees) retain their leaves – we call them needles – year-round.
Then there are deciduous conifers like tamarack that bear foliage that turns an attractive yell0w-gold in autumn and then fall to the ground, leaving a “naked” tree. These trees can be found “streaking” on the edge of Green Heron Pond near the Ordway Shelter and along the boardwalk on the opposite side of the pond.
There has been the occasional story of new homeowners who, during their first winter season living on their property, cut down one or more of these trees in winter, thinking it to be a dead evergreen. In actually, it’s a live deciduous conifer, not an evergreen.
Northern white cedar – arborvitae is an evergreen conifer that is very much alive, growing across the path from the tamarack near Ordway Shelter. Small, scale-like leaves accrue into flat evergreen sprays of dense foliage. These sprays appear to have been “ironed”.
Arborvitae, “tree of life” may refer to its evergreen, ever-living appearance. An interesting story lends credence to another reason for the name. Travelling in Canada’s St. Lawrence region in 1535, Jacques Cartier and his crew of French explorers fell ill to scurvy, a disease resulting from a vitamin C deficiency. Local American Indians saved them by administering a tea brewed from twigs and foliage from this Vitamin C-rich tree. This arborvitae truly became a “tree of life”.
Clouds of snow have collected amidst the boughs of a white pine. Look closely to see an individual needle cluster that springs from a common point along a twig. So too, the collected snow has separated out a single needle cluster: five needles – think five letters, five needles: W-H-I-T-E.
Speaking of pines, there are rare 1842 botanical plates on exhibit in the skyway gallery between Oswald and Snyder buildings. In the Reedy Gallery, I found the woodblock prints by Jim Meyer especially interesting because of the stylized pine trees in his work. He carves designs in poplar, cherry, maple and basswood – deciduous hardwoods. When you need to warm up, check out the current art exhibits before they close this week.
Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.