What Ferns Stay Green Through Winter

Ferns have a way of holding onto bits of their color during even the coldest months. Not that the plants are actively growing then, but a lot of their aerial parts don’t totally die back in the winter.

In the Northeastern United States we experience four seasons and right now it’s still officially Winter. Yeah, it looks kind of bleak out there in nature, at least when you’re looking at the big picture.

A lot of the grass, and weeds!, in lawns and near roadways appeared light green to tan or brown before the big snow arrived. The green parts will reappear when the weather gets sunnier and warmer and that’s actually not too far away now that it’s March, which came in like a lamb here in Central PA.

Greens polka-dot the landscape where the pine trees and hemlocks and other evergreen trees grow, but zoom in a little bit and you can find more splotches of color.

Big Frond Fern In The Oak Forest
Big Frond Fern In The Oak Forest

Taking a walk in the woods you can find ferns holding on to their leaves from the past growing season.

At least three kinds of ferns share our piece of land with us. At this point I can only call them as I see them:

  1. Large fern found singly. Long arching leaves with rounded leaflets.
  2. Small upright fern. Few leaves in vertical arrangement. Leaflets twist up the stems.
  3. Medium size light green fern often found in mass groupings. Erect leaves with etched leaflets.

So, how do we tell what fern it is?

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Don’t Miss Shenk’s Ferry This Spring

As cabin fever hits we’re mapping out the places we’d like to go and see this Spring.

Blizzard Dropped 17 Inches of Snow
Blizzard Dropped 17 Inches of Snow

At the top of the list is Shenk’s Ferry Wildflower Preserve in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. This is one awesome place that’s just so beautiful with many spring bloomers.

During April this forested glen becomes alive with color. The hillsides turn a bright green with new vegetation and flowers in bloom everywhere you look.

It can’t be overemphasized how beautiful Shenk’s Ferry Wildflower Preserve is! You just have to see it for yourself.

Download my copy of the Shenk’s Ferry Wildflowers Brochure — which is no longer available from PPL online as far as I can tell.

The Shenk’s Ferry Brochure shows directions to the site and names of the wildflowers that live there.

There is no parking area — people just park along the road near the entrance. Be prepared for some rough road as the gravel/muddy roadway isn’t maintained very well by PPL. Just go slow!

Trailhead Sign at Shenk's Ferry
Trailhead Sign at Shenk’s Ferry

Two years ago near the end of April we saw a group of students from a nearby college on the path. Their instructor was sharing her knowledge of the different flowering plants.

Walking on the path and drinking in the abundance of spring-blooming flowers is truly worth the trip to Shenk’s Ferry. If you go, let us know what your experience was like!

Witch Hazels Left Over Blooms

So, the witch hazel has me a little confused. Is it gonna make those nutlets this Spring?

Old Flowers of Witch Hazel
Old Flowers of Witch Hazel

I thought for the plenty of flowers I saw this fall that the dwarf trees would have lots of nuts on them before Spring.

Witch Hazel Flowers From Last Fall
Witch Hazel Flowers From Last Fall

I was surprised seeing the remnants of flowers at this late date in January.

(Photos taken 31 Jan 2016.)

The nuts that I saw in the fall must have lasted a whole year on the plant. Does that tell us that no animals really want to eat them? They should have been easy enough to find as the witch hazel trees are right on a lane that acts like a corridor connecting the agricultural field at the top of the ridge and the pond near the valley.

Can anybody clarify when witch hazels develop their fruit? In the meantime I’ll check out what the trees are doing as the weather warms up.

Your Skunk Cabbage Isn’t My Skunk Cabbage

The different flavors of The Discovery Channel or The History Channel are the TV channels most likely to be left on all day in my house. I was going about a few chores just this week when I overhead a familiar name and so I turned my attention to the big screen.

Somebody was talking about skunk cabbage as something bears like to eat and when I looked up at the TV I saw a plant that was not what I know to be skunk cabbage. The H2 channel was running some silly program — yeah I’m not convinced — about Bigfoot.

The people researching the big-hairy-man-ape legend were in Washington State about to set up some trail cameras in hope of capturing an image of Sasquatch passing though the forest. Deer, a cougar and a bear were actually photographed in the baited location. Sorry, no Bigfoot!

Anyway, the location was the Western United States and the mountain habitat was forested. Snow was on the ground and the skunk cabbage leaves were already growing so it had to be late winter or early spring.

Note the stream in the image below from a History Channel program as it’s near the habitat of skunk cabbage.

Forested Riverine Habitat of Western Skunk Cabbage
Forested Riverine Habitat of Western Skunk Cabbage

Skunk cabbage grows in lowlands for the moisture. It may be surprising to know it can grow right in the middle of creeks and in standing water.

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Wild Chives Free For The Picking

Every year when most of the scenery is trimmed down to bare trees and the colors are browns and greys, the chives come out of hiding. Green is really noticeable in the woods when you see it in January or February.

Wild Chive Patch Near a Large Fern in the Woods
Wild Chive Patch Near a Large Fern in the Woods

Wild chives grow in the forested mountains of Central Pennsylvania. The first time I realized these plants were the same chives that we eat, it stumped me. I guess I had never given any thought about, “Where do chives come from?

Well, they looked like chives, but fakes and look-a-likes abound in nature, so we need to take precautions and err on the side of safety. I know of a guy who died after eating a wild mushroom, so I take heed to all warnings!

Crushing one of the long, rolled leaves gave out a scent of chives. That’s how you know they’re ok to eat.

We’ve grown chives in the herb garden so it was easy to recognize the ‘clump of grass in the middle of the woods’ as wild chives.

The way to know you’re safe with your wild-picked chives is to note the smell. If your “chives” don’t have an onion or chive-like scent, then it’s not the right plant. Besides, in Eastern North America there isn’t another plant that looks quite like chives.

Chives, Allium schoenoprasum, grows in clumps that are taller than grass in your yard. These clumps rise above the leaf litter on the forest floor.

Wild Chive Plants Grow In The Appalachian Forest
Wild Chive Plants Grow In The Appalachian Forest

The dark green leaves are hollow cylinders that taper to a point at the tip. The longest leaves, maybe up to a foot long, bend to the sides. When crushed, they release a mild onion-like scent.

If you were to dig up the plant, you’d find small 1/2-inch white bulbs from which the leaves sprout.

Garlic, onion and chives are all members of the Lily Family, Liliaceae, and one thing they have in common are the odoriferous compounds that make them tasty. Other family members are quite poisonous, such as irises and gladiolas, but they have no onion-like smell. Also, all these related plants are much larger than chives and the leaves tend to be flat, not rolled like the chives leaves.

Flowering occurs in mid- to late-Spring as a cluster of pink/lavender flowerettes on a round flower head. We’ll be looking for chives to flower in May or June at our location.

Ice Fog Snared Weeds Like Mini Sculptures

Too bad it was so foggy that we didn’t venture out earlier. What a wonderful ice fog to behold!

Oncoming Headlights in the Ice Fog
Oncoming Headlights in the Ice Fog

Had we left the house any later we would have missed the beautiful display all along the back roads to the main highway.

Car lights beamed through the fog and the land on the mountain looked liked it was topped off by a giant cloud. You couldn’t see far at all, perhaps an 1/8 of a mile at most.

Mini-Sculptures of Ice on the Roadside Weeds
Mini-Sculptures of Ice on the Roadside Weeds

Then, at the side of the road the weeds glowed with an extra bright white. The once white and golden-flowering weeds were white with a heavy frost. But it seemed like such a thick frost we termed it an “ice fog” that gave us the beautiful icy mini-sculptures to ponder.

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Witch Hazel Blooms Latest in the Year

A sighting of a new coltsfoot plant reminded me that Nature does have a way of surprising us.

Like this one day in October I was thinking to myself, “Well, there’s nothing blooming now!” as I walked down the lane to the highway. Seeing all the tree leaves on the ground verified that we were well into Autumn and the hangers-on were providing most of the color in the scenery.

Blooming Witch Hazel Blends With Yellow and Orange Leaves in the Background
Blooming Witch Hazel Blends With Yellow and Orange Leaves in the Background

Photos taken 29 October 2015. (Click on any image to see a larger version.)

The few colorful exceptions were the Chrysanthemum and Alyssum planted next to the house where they receive southern sun during the day and warmth from the building at night. A stray aster or Indian Tobacco here and there showed a few blooms, but for the most part flowers are history for the year once November starts, in Central Pennsylvania at least.

Witch Hazel Trees Bloom in October/November
Witch Hazel Trees Bloom in October/November

Then I saw the witch hazel trees in an awesome flowering! Probably the most blossoms I have seen on these trees on the east side of the lane. Photos couldn’t do them justice as the blooms faded into the scenery of yellows and oranges provided by the awesome fall foliage.

Some had just uncurled their long, strap-like, yellow petals.

Yellow Strap-like Petals of Witch Hazel Flowers
Yellow Strap-like Petals of Witch Hazel Flowers

A few old nuts from last year were still attached to a stem…but were the food bits still inside?

A Pair of Witch Hazel Nuts with New Flowers
A Pair of Witch Hazel Nuts with New Flowers

An oddity, a curiosity. Why bloom so late? What pollinates the flowers, wind? They surely can take the cold!

After a month or more of chilling weather and a few storms with gusty winds the witch hazel flowers having lost their petals still cling to the branches. Perhaps their small nuts will grow here to become a future food for a squirrel or wild turkey.

Lone Coltsfoot Volunteers in the Lane

When the holiday season comes to the mountains of Pennsylvania not much greenery can be found other than that of the pines and hemlocks that grow in our forests.

By December the deciduous trees are bare, but a few plants will still show green parts as long as the weather is mild. Ferns, grasses and mosses may retain some greenery the whole year while other plants in protected areas may still support a few leaves for a while longer.

I was surprised to see new leaves on a Coltsfoot plant that volunteered in the middle of the lane. There it was this green plant among all the grey and brown.

Coltsfoot in the Lane Growing New Leaves
Coltsfoot in the Lane Growing New Leaves

Photo taken 5 Dec 2015. (Click on any photo to see a larger image.)

The small new leaves with their perfect edges and solid color surround the central stems that have a purple hue. The older, larger leaves look raggedy in contrast.

New Leaves of Coltsfoot in the Lane
New Leaves of Coltsfoot in the Lane

So, I’ve made a mental note (and this post!) to help me remember what the new coltsfoot plant looks like now so that we can check it out in Spring.

If we’re lucky enough to see flowers, photos will be posted here in March or April, depending on how late the frozen part of winter lasts.