As the colors of fall fade onto the ground and the trees become skeletons, the busyness of the forest seems to be only a memory of its summer bustle. The transition into the harshness of winter is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful natural happenings to witness. Nothing quite compares to the silence of a forest after a fresh snow, or the dazzling glisten of the sun of off the branches of snow laden trees. As you can probably tell by now, I am lover of winter and its subtle beauty. Winter months are often overlooked by the much flashier Spring that follows. The return of flowers, hikers, and warmer temperatures. Life seems to wake from is winter slumber. However, a careful observer who dares to venture onto a hiking trail in the winter may find that life remains rather active, and in a spectacular fashion. Let’s take a moment to shine a spotlight on some of natures oddities that not only share my love of winter but thrive in it.
One of the plants I find most intriguing is one that makes a habit of flowering before any other wildflower has a chance. The skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is a plant that puts out its flower in late February and into the spring months, while there is still snow covering the ground. This plant has the amazing ability to heat its flower up to be, on average, 20 degrees warmer than the temperature of the air. This of course melts any snow in the area and attracts the plant’s pollinator to flower. So what pollinator is out and about in February? Flies! In this case carrion flies that are attracted by not only the heat produced by the skunk cabbage, but also the decaying, skunk-like smell that the flower emits. These plants often grow near streams or wet areas and occur in groups. If you are ever out hiking in late February and come across a group of brown flowers that poke out of the ground, you may have just stumbled across a skunk cabbage patch!
Moving away from the smelly world of the skunk cabbage, lets look at something more aesthetically appealing. The common winterberry (Ilex verticillate) is a shrub that flowers in the summer but develops a brilliant red fruit that last long into the winter. These persistent fruits provide an invaluable food source to small mammals and over 48 species of birds. This shrub is commonly used in landscaping for its beautiful fruits and its historical usage used to treat a variety of illnesses, allowing some to give it the name “fever bush.” When walking through the woods during the winter months this spectacular plant often grows thick and with bright red fruit, they are pleasantly hard to miss.
While life does seem to slow down with the frost of a cold winter’s night, the forest remains active and productive all year round. If you are looking for fantastic nearby winter hiking sites, I would recommend Fall Creek Woods, Stout Memorial Woodland, and White River Woods. For more wonderful winter properties to adventure and driving directions visit www.fortheland.org. Whether it is the skunk cabbage who seems to use the cold to its advantage, or the winterberry who gives life in the form of nourishment, a winter hike can truly be a unique experience to share between you and nature.