The color of winter

Winter has color? Isn’t it always just drab gray in Ohio? Not really…

Granted, winter doesn’t have the wondrous colors of spring, summer or fall, but it offers something that isn’t as readily noticed in the other seasons. Textures. For those of us who love to be outside, it forces the senses to see beyond color and observe more deeply. It does take effort, and practice. But it’s well worth it.

Take for example the colors and textures of goldenrod (Solidago). It’s a perennial plant with more than 100 species. Its pollen is heavy so while it is transported by insects, it is not transported by wind and really can’t be blamed for seasonal fall allergies. Goldenrod is practically everywhere if you look in winter. It’s seeds provide food for many birds including chickadees, finches and juncos. At this time of year, its seeds are just waiting for the wind to distribute them far and wide. The fluff on these seeds are soft to the touch. It’s easy to see how the wind can carry the seed away so effortlessly.

Sometimes it’s the combination of plant seed that catch the eye, like this Mullein foxglove alongside goldenrod. Mullein foxglove has small bright yellow flowers in summer, can grow to 5 feet or more and has hundreds (if not thousands) of seeds per plant. The black seed pods are quite unique in shape and are actually pretty hard.

Lichen readily retains color in winter. No surprise here. I’m sure you’ve seen it in a number of places. Trees both alive and dead may have lichen growing on it, but you sometimes find more color and variety on dead limbs like this one. This lichen has fruiting bodies (apothecia) which are the cup-like organisms with the dark brown centers. There are a tremendous number of lichen species. I haven’t even begun to learn enough to try an identification as yet. But I do find the mixture of colors and textures amazing.

While walking in the woods at this time of year, it’s very easy to identify beech trees. They’re one of the few trees that retain their leaves, which appear almost paper-like. As the leaves age, they fade a bit to a lighter shade. If you look closely, you can see buds at the branch terminus.

I’ve always wondered why beech trees (and some oaks) retain their leaves while other deciduous trees drop theirs. Seems this is a question many people ask, and according to various websites and research there are many suppositions. Some believe that retaining leaves or dead plant matter (known as marcescence) could be because these trees are on dry, infertile soil – such as where oaks and beech trees typically grow. Retaining leaves during the winter could help beech trees to slow decomposition of leaves so they deliver organic matter to the soil in spring when it’s needed most. Some think retaining leaves helps hold snow for more moisture for the tree. I’ve also read that retaining leaves could be a frost protection for buds, and that it is also a deterrent to deer browsing. Are any of these accurate? No one seems to know definitively, at least based upon what I’ve read.

With leaves off most trees and plants, it’s much easier to see some of the berries that remain. Unfortunately most of those remaining red berries may be from invasive honeysuckle (at least in Ohio). That is a food for some birds but mostly described as “junk” food as they don’t have the nutrition that berries from native plants provide. Recently I ran across some black berries – no, not the good tasting blackberries we have in summer. These were small and slightly oval, clustering somewhat like grapes and almost a blue-black color. I wasn’t sure what these might be. But based upon cursory research, I believe these are privet. Yes, another invasive plant unfortunately. But colorful nonetheless.

Plants are not the only thing providing color in the winter. Animals do too and sometimes you don’t know what you may find – or learn. I heard something skittering in the leaves and stopped – motionless – to watch this squirrel. It was frantically digging at the leaves and then upended itself so it’s entire head was covered by leaves. And it stayed that way for awhile. Looking for acorns? No. My guess is it was burying a nut. After completion of the burial procedure, it meticulously arranged, and rearranged, and rearranged yet again the leaves over top of the area. Then he was gone like a shot.

Birds offer color in the wintertime. Bright red Cardinals. Colorful Blue jays. Eastern bluebirds. Even (what some call) the lowly sparrow provide color, though granted, some (like this Song sparrow) are not very vivid with their tan, brown and black coloring. But their song more than make up for it.

And sometimes there is drama to add to the color. Like when this Cooper’s hawk swooped in to catch breakfast in my backyard. One can admire the color and magnificence of this hawk. And also realize, all creatures need to eat to survive. Hopefully it didn’t eat one of my favorite birds.

Winter color is everywhere if one looks closely enough. And it has its own dramatic beauty, like that of the bird above. Or perhaps it’s the magnificence of a small stream rippling through a winter woodland with hushed quiet all around. The color and texture of winter is all around us. And it’s up to us to find that beauty and recognize its value in our lives. Winter has much to offer, if we only take a closer look.

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.