Bedford Audubon Society

A Northern Westchester & Eastern Putnam Counties, New York
Chapter of the National Audubon Society

Celebrating 98 Years of Conservation 1913-2011

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Enjoying Wildflowers In Winter
By Carol Gracie

Common mullein (Verbascum thapsis) Common mullein (Verbascum thapsis) leaves in snow

Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsis)


Stonefly in the snow
Stonefly in the snow

Most people feel that once the last gentian has bloomed, the wildflower display is over for the year. However, the wildflower season can be extended throughout the winter if you turn your attention to the remnants of wildflowers that can be found in the fields and forests of our area. Searching for evidence of summer’s colorful floral beauty on a cold, snowy day can provide the incentive to get outdoors and enjoy nature during the less colorful time of year. Looking for “winter wildflowers” offers the opportunity to learn winter botany identification and something about the life history of the plants. It’s easier in winter to notice the spherical or elliptical galls on the stems of goldenrod that harbor the larvae of flies and moths, respectively. A winter walk may also provide you with other opportunities like deducing what might have happened when the tracks of two different animals meet in the snow or the surprise of seeing “snow fleas” (springtails) and stoneflies moving about on the snow in February. Of course, you’ll have the pleasure of enjoying our winter birds as well.

Common Milkweed Pod Common Milkweed Pod Closeup

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) Pods

Many of these wildflower remains have a beauty of their own as evidenced in the pale golden interior of the “pods” of common milkweed that grace meadows and roadsides during late fall and winter or the sculptural form of teasel. This is best appreciated when the plants are silhouetted against a snow-covered landscape. A dusting of snow on the plants themselves serves to enhance their beauty.

Fruits of the evening primrose - Oenothera biennis
Fruits of the Evening Primrose
(Oenothera biennis)

In many cases, the visible wildflower parts seen in winter are the remnants of fruits that developed from the flowers of summer and fall. Some of these are quite attractive in winter bouquets or may be effectively used in wreath-making. However, if you collect them for this purpose, always leave some of the plants in place as they provide perches and sometimes food – in the form of seeds – for birds. And be sure to shake the seeds out of those that you do collect to insure that the flowers will grow again the following year.

The plant parts visible in winter vary with the species. In the milkweeds, it’s the split fruits, or follicles, that remain; in mints, it’s the calyx or group of calices (the usually green part under the corolla) that are the showy remnants; in beggar’s ticks, it’s the spine-tipped achenes (fruits comprised of a single seed fused to the fruit wall) that get caught on our pants and socks to be transported to another place; and in mustards (e.g., garlic mustard and poor man’s pepper), it’s the thin membrane to which the seeds were attached within the fruit. Other plants make their presence known by rosettes of green leaves produced in their first year of growth. Examples would be the biennial mullein with its downy, pale green leaves and the evening primrose, both usually found in close proximity to the second year plants with upright stalks of opened capsules that will spread the seeds to start the cycle again. Wildflowers with evergreen leaves include the spotted wintergreen with white-striped, leathery green leaves and the rattlesnake plantain orchid with its beautiful, and surprisingly delicate, reticulated white on green-patterned leaves.

More Winter Wildflower Images

See Carol Gracie's Winter Ice and Snow Photos
See Carol Gracie's Winter Evergreen Photos
See Carol Gracie's Article and Photos of Witch-Hazel

Photos Courtesy of and Copyright © by Carol Gracie

Copyright © 2007 Bedford Audubon Society
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