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Mountain State Flora: Identifying Winter Plants

By John Beckman

Identify plants in winter? It sounds a little crazy, but it is possible to identify plants by using characteristics that persist throughout the winter. If you are interested in winter botany, it will be worth the money to invest in a field guide that specializes in winter plant identification.

Photo by Nanci-Bross FregonaraTwo recommended books are Weeds in Winter by Lauren Brown, and Woody Plants in Winter by Core and Ammons. These books use specific patterns on the twigs, buds and bark to differentiate species. Persistent fruits are also a good way to identify plants in winter. For example, redbud trees have bean-like seed pods that often remain after the leaves have fallen. Flowering dogwood trees produce clusters of familiar bright red berries. Maple trees retain seeds that spin like helicopter blades in the wind, and the fruits of burdock weeds are the bean-sized burrs that cling tenaciously to sweaters and socks.

Whenever I try to identify trees in winter, I “cheat” by looking at the leaves on the ground surrounding the base of the tree. Chances are some of the leaves from the tree above will remain on the forest floor for quite some time. Be careful when using this technique, however. Fall breezes can spread leaves from different trees all over the forest.

Habitat location is another useful clue in identifying plants in any season. Many species strongly prefer high, dry ridges, and other plants will only be found near water. Botany field guides will usually note a plant’s preferred soil moisture and elevation --more clues to help you learn winter plants.

Photo by Nanci-Bross FregonaraWhen venturing out on a winter botany field trip, bring along your field guides and some plastic bags in which to carry collections of twigs, nuts and dried leaves. A magnifying glass is extremely useful for examining tiny hairs and miniscule scars on twigs.

Keep a notebook handy for writing down where you saw the plant and in what sort of habitat you found it. Chances are, the plants you collect in winter will sprout in the same place in the spring. Returning to collection sites during the summer will help you check if your winter identification was correct.

John Beckman is a former DNR wildlife biologist now working in Virginia