Passions & Pursuits

Awake in Winter

Gone now are the vibrant hues of Autumn. Still, what beauty there is to be found in the woods!

It will only be seen by the few bold souls who venture forth undeterred by the naysayers' testimony of the bleak and dreary world that now huddles down amid the blackened boles of the trees and waits for Spring.

The sun shines unimpeded on the forest floor. The majestic Beech alone stands royally attired in robes of burnished copper, filtering the light to shades of cinnamon. The effect is that of standing in some ancient cathedral, the shattered stained-glass windows harking back to its former glory. The Beech is in and of itself worth the cold of Winter.

Throughout the sylvan realm of this arboreal monarch march loyal subjects of the King. Like wise men they come, each one bearing their own special gift in low slung, herbaceous arms.

Here is Partridge Berry, festooned with plump red berries. This plant is food and medicine for man and beast alike. Starchy now, they will sweeten as Winter progresses until the kind-eyed Hermit Thrush plucks them off in February. Look closely at the ruddy orbs! There you will see two perfectly round scars where two beautiful white, trumpet-shaped flowers once collaborated to form this single fruit. These little scars differentiate Partridge Berry from other red berries in the forest that may or may not be edible. A handful of them is said to have similar properties to baby aspirin, while copious quantities are reputed to cause uterine contractions! So, enjoy them in moderation.

Battalions of Shining Club Moss catch the eye. These venerable old plants are arraying themselves for battle with tiny sword-like spore cases coated with what looks like gold dust. Breezes that would not reach them, far below the canopy of Summer, now whisk their gilded offspring away to hidden cloisters in the forest where they will muster little armies of their own. So, in effect, it is love and not war that they make. These spores are highly combustible and were used for flash photography before magnesium shavings replaced them. Also highly antiseptic, Civil War surgeons would collect them and rub a thin coat of them on their hands before surgical procedures in order to reduce the risk of infection. Once established, it will take these tiny spores seventeen years to reach their mature adult form, so when encountered, these plants should definitely engender respect.

Ah the Orchids! Normally associated with the Dog Days of Summer, there are a hand full of orchids that take advantage of the Winter sun which bathes the usually dark forest floor. The Putty Root, or Adam and Eve Orchid, has lovely pinstriped leaves a little larger than a man's hand. Absent in the Summer months, these leaves are now manufacturing nutrients that will be stored in its underground corms (compact bulbous roots) until they are needed to produce its surprisingly beautiful flower in the coming year.

Why "Adam and Eve"? you ask. Well, if you carefully move the leaf litter and about an inch of loose topsoil away from the base of the pinstriped leaves, you will notice that the Putty Root actually has two underground corms. The younger of the two (Eve) grows out from the side of (Adam) the older corm. When crushed (please take my word for it) these corms have a consistency not unlike a glue stick, thus the Putty Root moniker.

The leaves of the Crane Fly Orchid are only slightly smaller with beautiful purple stars set on a dark green backdrop. Delightfully, if you turn one of these leaves over, you will find that its entire underside is deep purple and smooth as silk. It too will flower in the coming year with no leaves present at the time. The flowers are translucent pink, extremely delicate and not unlike its namesake insect, the Crane Fly. Best to make a mental note of where you have seen the leaves if you hope to catch the flowers in bloom later on!

"Leaves of three, let it be!" This little anecdote, invented to help children avoid poison ivy, has led many a wayfarer to avoid an innocent three leaved plant called Toothwort. ("Wort" being an Olde English word for plant). This "Tooth Plant" is low growing and somewhat colonial in nature. Seldom is it found without several more of its own kind in attendance. Tiny tooth-like protrusions along its roots and the fact that it was used to treat tooth aches account for its name. It was routinely consumed as a salad green by both Native Americans and settlers. It possesses a bit of a bite, akin to that encountered in watercress. For those surviving the Winter on salted pork and cornbread, it was a welcome sight.

The Cherokee called this plant Gurayi. There is a mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains that produces it in such quantity that the native people referred to it as Gurayi Mountain. The Scotch Irish settlers promptly corrupted that to “Curry He” Mountain and the settler's wives, not to be outdone, named the next mountain over Curry She Mountain! In similar ways, much of the nomenclature of the Great Smoky Mountains was affected by the things that grow there.

A personal favorite among the Winter plants is a cousin of the Ginger plant called Little Brown Jug. The shiny, heart-shaped leaves of this plant offer up a spicy aroma that one would be hard pressed to surpass. Little Brown Jug will not bloom until May and even then it will bashfully hide it's small, leathery, urn-shaped flowers in the humus at the base of its leaves. It's a bit of a treasure hunt to go looking for them!

Be of good cheer then friends! Do not shun the Winter woods for all their supposed dreariness, but rather venture forth with bold anticipation and with new eyes to see those things that so many others will miss! There is a myriad more contenders than these few that I have noted, but they are yours to discover. There has never been a Winter that does not hold within it the promise of Spring.

- Boyd Hopkins, Head Naturalist

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