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?

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:

By March, plants, animals and human visitors in the Fells are all getting antsy for spring, and frustrated by the distinct possibility of more snow at any time in the month. Hope is on the way however as spring officially begins this month and early signs of spring are everywhere. Early in the month our clocks change. This will make it darker in the early morning for a while, for those of you who like to walk in the Fells then. But now of course there is more light in the evenings.

Bearberry buds

Bearberry buds

Even in February buds on several woody plants were beginning to fill out. By March this is clearly evident, for example on blueberry and huckleberry bushes. And the evergreen ground-plants, if they’ve had a decent covering of snow during the coldest days of the winter to avoid damage, are now developing their buds. Bearberry, for example, is filling out its flower buds ready for blooming in late April.

Skunk Cabbage can be seen at the water’s edge of streams or in swampy areas where water is flowing through. It has been blooming by early March in recent years, and as such is the first non-woody plant to bloom in these parts, but ‘bloom’ hardly seems the right word for a flower that would not win a beauty contest, made worse with the skunk-like smell if the plant is crushed. The flowering-body, called the spadix, looks to me like a Faberge egg sitting in its little housing called the spathe. It is related to and has the same structure as an arum lily. The bad smell and even look of rotting meat attracts flies, some of the few pollinators around so early in spring . Later, very large bright green leaves develop.

Skunk Cabbage

Skunk Cabbage

March 20th or 21st (depending on the year) marks the official beginning of spring.  But with our latitude here in the Boston area at 42 North the literal equinox – i.e. when the length of day and night are exactly the same – occurs four days earlier when the sun rises at 6.53am and sets at 6.53pm on the Summer-time clock. From then on we can really feel the growing strength of the sun and both plant and animal life will take advantage of the greater amount of sunlight.  On warm days keep an eye out for the Mourning Cloak butterfly – a big dark brown job with creamy-yellow edging.

But not all activity is during the day. Towards the end of March, on reasonably mild, damp nights, spotted salamanders gather at vernal pools in the Fells to congregate and inseminate. In recent years vernal pool expert Matt Burne has led expeditions to observe this amazing sight. Send me an email if you’re interested in signing up.

Here is a report from a few years ago:

“About 20 of us welcomed spring by attending the Friends’ Salamander Migration Program. After checking for over a week the spotted salamanders did not disappoint, appearing at their ancestral pool to mate and provide a new generation for future amazement.

One solitary individual was noted on Thursday, March 25th, having traveled over a dry woodland. A light rain the following evening encouraged about eighteen others to arrive by 9pm. Later, at midnight, congressing was at full tilt with upwards of three dozen salamanders participating. It was repeated the next night.”

On March 28, 2005, on a very rainy night, it was my joy to be part of a small group led by Hue Holley to a pool in the Fells. We saw about 20 salamanders. They were bigger than I expected – six to eight inches long – and I was struck by their determination to get to the pool, up over rocks and slithering over ice. The photo at the top shows a couple who made it.

And their fellow amphibians, the Spring Peeper frogs and Wood Frogs, the latter sounding like ducks, are also active towards the end of March in the pools and swampy areas in the Fellls. And of course song birds are coming back.

Wild Turkeys are also about in the Fells this time of year – their mating season.

Huckleberry Bud

Huckleberry Bud

The information and images in this post initially appeared on Found in the Fells, a project of Friends of the Middlesex Fells Board Chairman Dr. Bryan Hamlin.

By Bryan Hamlin

This is somewhat of a down-time for wildflowers on the woodland floor where it is now very shaded. But there are some that manage. Look for the attractive False Solomon’s Seal. I think it’s too nice to be anyone’s false. It is in the same genus – in other words closely related –  as Canada Mayflower (see May page) – but the plant arches over the same way as the earlier blooming Solomon’s Seal. In late May and blooming through much of June – Yellow Star Grass (which is a lily). In the second half of June the pairs of feathery white Patridgeberry flowers decorate the already attractive patches of small dark green leaves on banks. And where the sun gets through more – where there are meadows in the Fells and open spaces on hill-tops and around the larger bodies of water and along the trails, then there will be blossoms galore; in other words where the plants can get enough sun.Four-leaved Milkweed is a more attractive cousin to the Common Mikweed; and Rattlesnake Weed – is a nondescript yellow hawkweed save for its striking rosette of basal leaves with their dark purple veins. There are other hawkweeds blooming but these are not native. Another woodland bloomer in June in somewhat damp places is the cute-looking Indian Cucumber Root, a very small-flowered lily. And two laurels bloom – the bushes of white Mountain Laurel and the smaller Sheep Laurel with its magenta flowers.

Mountain Laurel – Kalmia latifolia

Yellow Star Grass – Hypnoxis hirsuta

In really wet places, including on the sides of ponds look for the striking native Iris or Blue Flag. On the north shore of Wrights Pond there are also Yellow Irises but these are an introduction, and I have to say I prefer our native iris. Also by the sides of ponds the sweet scented Swamp Azalea and Swamp Sweetbells, the latter looking a bit like a late-blooming High-bush Blueberry except that the white bell flowers are hung out in long rows on slender twigs. And on the open water of ponds throughout the Fells are to be seen both white and yellow water-lilies. In short, much to delight the eye and nose in beautiful June.

The information and images in this post initially appeared on Found in the Fells, a project of Friends of the Middlesex Fells Board Chairman Dr. Bryan Hamlin.

By Bryan Hamlin

It felt for a while as if spring would never come and now everything is happening at once.  Of any month May sees the most action, the greatest change in the Fells, and the greatest abundance of flowers on the forest floor.

In early May the trees haven’t fully leafed out yet and so we get the early spring flowers taking advantage of the strong sunlight that is still reaching the forest floor, some of them, of course, already flowering in late April. In the first ten days of May look for Trout Lilies – the yellow flowers like miniature day lilies, the leaves pale green with brown blotches like a trout. And this is when blueberry bushes flower with low-bush leading the pack usually in bloom by May 1st on sunny hill-tops with clusters of small white bells, flushed with pink in the bud. The bees are happy and, if everything goes according to plan, we’ll be picking blueberries in July.

Wood Anemone – Anemone quinquefolia

The high-bush species is only a few days behind often to be found in damper situations along the shoes of ponds. The white bells are somewhat longer than the low-bush species. This frustrates the wood bumblebee with its short tongue as it cannot reach up inside the bells to get the nectar. So, it cuts a slit on the side in order to stick its tongue in and steal the nectar without therefore fulfilling its part of the bargain and carry pollen to the next bush. Too many bumblebees doing this and it must surely affect berry production. About a week later the middle-sized pale blueberry (sometimes confusingly called early low-bush),Vaccinium pallidum, comes with its flowers that vary between creamy-green to coppery color. It is not until mid-May that the Huckleberry blooms with its distinct looking flowers.  Other early May flowers in the Fells are violets, Bellwort, wood anemone and Jack-in-the-pulpit.  And those Bearberry buds, that have slowly been developing since early March, finally blossom in clusters of little red-trimmed bells.  These flowers with their constricted openings can also can get ‘slitted’.

Bearberry – Arctostaphylos uva-ursi

Meanwhile, the shoots of much else have been pushing up and in mid-May, the next group of flowers phase in. Most conspicuous – perhaps the ‘queen of the Fells’ – is the Pink Lady Slipper Orchid.  It is all over the Fells, in some cases in patches containing scores, usually where there are white pines.  Do admire this striking flower but don’t pick and don’t try to transplant to your garden – it won’t work. The roots are in a delicate association with various soil fungi. Other mid-May flowers are Canada Mayflower, related to our garden Lily of the Valley, and carpeting many places in the Fells, Wild Sarsaparilla, wild strawberry, Solomon’s Seal, and, on rocky hill-tops – the striking Pale Corydalis. Also liking rocks but more in the woods are the beautiful red and yellow wild columbine.  Not so common but present in some parts of the Fells are Starflower, and in some damp places the Nodding Trillium with its white flower hanging down under a canopy of three leaves. Much more showy is our native Dogwood tree with its typical large white flowers.

Pink Lady Slipper Orchids

Pink Lady Slipper Orchids – Cypripedium acaule

Much is rightly being written nowadays about global warming.  Spring flowers are particularly sensitive to temperature for their flowering time.  Records show that the flowering times for several of the plants just mentioned have advanced at least ten days, in some cases much longer, over the past fifty years here in Eastern Massachusetts.  Some may shrug and say, “Ah well, so what?”  but it isn’t as simple as looking earlier for some favorite flower. Flowers are pollinated by insects, in some cases specific species of insect. Supposing the insect emergence  gets out of sync with the flower it is supposed to pollinate.  Then the plant’s seed production is in jeopardy.

The information and images in this post initially appeared on Found in the Fells, a project of Friends of the Middlesex Fells Board Chairman Dr. Bryan Hamlin.



By mid-April in some parts of the Fells – certainly Virginia Wood and near Bellevue Pond – comes a true beauty.  One of the early spring ephemerals, Bloodroot, is so called because the root, if cut, bleeds red. This delicate white-petaled flower with deep yellow anthers stands wrapped in its ‘quilted’ blanket of leaves on a frosty morning waiting for the sun to warm up before it opens. Another early beauty is Round-leaved Hepatica, sadly not very common in the Fells but it can be found on the south slope of Bear Hill.  These flowers are termed ephemerals and indeed have a brief moment of glory whilst the sun reaches the woodland floor, and then are gone as quickly as they came.

Around the third or fourth week of April the woodland floor, which has been a dull brown ever since the snows melted, almost miraculously develops large patches of bright green. Most of this is the result of the leaves of Mayflower pushing up and filling out. Others leaves developing now are wood anemone, wild columbine often in cracks on rocks, and on higher drier ground – Pussytoes with its small heads of furry white flowers.

The streams and swampy ground, which saw the first activities at the beginning of the month, towards the close are entering a second phase of development and color. The bright green leaves of skunk cabbage are now getting very large marking  water courses clearly from a distance. Above them is the gangly shrub Spicebush with its bunches of tiny yellow flowers along the leafless branches catching the sun.  And Marsh Marigold, whose leaves have been developing for some time, blooms. In royal England it is called Kingcup reminding us that it is not a marigold (daisy family) but rather a top-of-the-line buttercup, definitely looking regal in its boggy habitat.

Trout Lily

Trout Lily

By the last week of April large patches of Trout Lilies, with their brown spotted leaves, can be seen at Bellevue Pond and at the west end of the blue trail by Whitemore Brook.  These delightful small lilies reflex their yellow petals on sunny days exposing dark red anthers.


The information and images in this post initially appeared on Found in the Fells, a project of Friends of the Middlesex Fells Board Chairman Dr. Bryan Hamlin.