Winter Botany: Wildflowers in Winter

It’s winter time, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any wildflowers to see. Many of the flowers of the Fells have a winter form you can spot and identify once you know what to look for. Here are a few of the easier ones:

Spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata): In winter, Nov 12. In bloom, July 5.


This is one of my favorites. It’s evergreen, so you can spot it on the forest floor any time it’s clear of snow. The dark green leaves with white veins stand out well against the yellow-brown leaf floor.

Pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata): In winter, Nov 12. In bloom, June 23.

 Pipsissewa in bloom. White flowers nodding downward, circle of evergreen leaves at base

Closely related to spotted wintergreen above, pipsissewa has very similar flowers but fairly different leaves. It’s also evergreen, so you can spot it all winter when the ground is clear.

Canada-mayflower (Maianthemum canadense):  In winter, Nov 12. In bloom, May 17.


This plant blankets large swaths of the Fells in spring and summer. In fall, red fruits replace the sweet-smelling white flowers. Most of the fruits have been eaten by winter time, but you’ll still spot them if you keep a close eye out.

Ghost pipes (Monotropa uniflora): In winter, Dec 9. In bloom, July 22.

  ghost pipes in flower. 3 white plants with nodding heads

This parasitic plant steals nutrients from the roots of trees instead of photosynthesizing. It’s one of those plants that you can’t stop seeing once you first spot it. In summer, the white flowers stand out clearly. And in winter, the clusters of dark brown stems are still pretty visible against lighter leaves or snow.

What other plants do you look for in winter?

I was out admiring some beautiful ice formations yesterday when I spotted a real treasure, a shrub flowering in December!

American witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is unique that way. While other plants hunker down for winter, American witchhazel puts out flowers in October-November. Seeing it still hanging on in December sure lifts my spirits!

American witchhazel is native to New England. The flowers are insect-pollinated. Online references I found variously listed moths, gnats, and bees. Pollination occurs in fall, but fertilization doesn’t happen until spring. The fruit develops through the normal growing season and releases its seeds in the fall as the plant puts out the next round of flowers.

In a few months, keep an eye out for its relative, vernal witchhazel (Hamamelis vernalis). The flowers are very similar. Vernal witchhazel not native to New England, but it’s planted here sometimes as an ornamental.


The image above is downy rattlesnake-plantain (Goodyera pubescens). This native, New England orchid had not been seen in the Fells for more than 20 years – until Dennis Crouse and Lindsay Beal re-discovered a small population.

Bryan Hamlin, our local expert on the flora of the Fells, says that a previous botanical survey in 1993 reported its presence. But the survey that he and others conducted from 2004-2012 had not been able to relocate it.

It is really exciting that it has been re-found after so long!

Rattlenake plantain in bloom

Rattlesnake-plantain in bloom – not taken in the Fells

The plants found this year were not blooming. But when this species does flower, it produces a spike of small, white flowers that I find very beautiful.

Closeup of rattlesnake-plantain flowers in bloom

Closeup of rattlesnake-plantain in bloom – not taken in the Fells

Look at the tiny pouch shape that the flowers make and the fine fuzz of hairs that give it the “downy” part of its common name. The “rattlesnake” part probably comes from the patterns on the leaves which look a bit like snake skin. And “plantain” from the leaves’ similarity to common garden plantain (Plantago major).

Dried brown seed capsules

Dried brown seed capsules follow the flowers if they are pollinated

Rattlesnake-plantain flowers in later summer and is pollinated by bees. If you find it at other times of the year, look for the dried brown seed capsules that indicate it flowered the previous season.

The leaves are evergreen, so it’s a great one to look for in late Fall and early Spring when the ground is mostly brown and its bright green leaves stand out.

Downy rattlesnake plantain is fairly common in New England. But, like most other local orchids, it is very sensitive to soil conditions and disturbance. If you’re lucky enough to come across this plant in the Fells or elsewhere, be careful not to trample it or disturb the area around it. And if you do find it in the Fells, take a picture and let us know!

To learn more about this plant, check out these resources:

I went for a wander today through a unique part of the Fells called the “90mm site”, named after the military anti-aircraft weapons that once resided there.

Pollinator on flat-top goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia) – native plant!
It’s unusual in that it includes areas of open meadow in the mostly-wooded Fells. A meadow habitat is a sanctuary for birds, animals, and insects – including pollinators like bees, flies, and butterflies.
Pollinator approaching hawkweed (Hieracium sp.) – likely non-native
In New England, meadows naturally give way over time to shrubs and then trees in a process called ecological succession.
Pollinator on black knapweed (Centaurea nigra) – non-native plant

Unless nature or humans intervene, that is.

Pollinator on round-headed bush-clover (Lespedeza capitata) – native plant!

To remain a meadow, an area needs ongoing care in the form of mowing and removing invasive species, like Asian bittersweet, which overrun neglected areas.

Pollinator on white sweet-clover (Melilotus albus) – non-native plant

Lucky for this meadow, Medford Girl Scout Troop 75198 have taken it on as their Silver Award Project. They’re clearing invasives, planting natives, and making way for more pollinators like the ones in these photos. What wonderful work!

[Plant ID corrections & pollinator IDs very welcome. There’s so much to learn! Thanks to Walter for IDing the goldenrod.]

I was out wildflower-hunting at the 90mm site in the Lawrence Woods section of the Fells. Here are some of the native treasures in flower or fruit right now:

Pine-sap (Hypopitys monotropa)
I was delighted to find by far the largest cluster of pine-sap (Monotropa hypopitys) I’ve ever seen! It doesn’t photosynthesize – instead it is a parasite on tree roots with the help of a fungus. How cool is that?! This patch is past flower and is in fruit.
Two more of my favorite plants were in fruit – That’s spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) on the left and american shinleaf (Pyrola americana) on the right. Both are evergreen – keep an eye out for the leaves even in the winter!
Partridge sensitive-pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata)

Partidge pea is described as “sensitive” because it responds to touch and to coming darkness by folding together its leaflets. Isn’t that neat? I wish I’d realized it while I was there.

Look closely at this bluecurl (Trichostema dichotomum) – they’re tiny, but exquisite! The photo on the left is a macro shot.
Some really wonderful finds today! I’m so grateful to have such a wonderful natural oasis so near home.
[Thanks for the Pyrola ID, Walter]