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.

As I slip into the woods on the Virginia Wood Trail the sound of morning traffic on Pond Street quickly fades away. The quiet forest envelops me with rustling leaves and birds calling. I’ve adopted this trail through the Friends Adopt-a-Trail program, but in some ways I feel like it’s adopted me. The lure of the forest is hard to resist, and these early morning forays before work stay with me all day. Of course there’s lots to do, branches to trim back, logs to cut, trash to pick up, but the work is light and fun, and it’s rewarding to help keep the trail clear for others to enjoy. And there’s lots to enjoy in Virginia Wood, between the waterfall at the dam, and all the interesting stories at each station of the Spot Pond Brook Historic Trail.

Mapleleaf Viburnum

Mapleleaf Viburnum

Along the way I notice the changing of the seasons, Indian cucumber leaves turning crimson (photo at top), yellow zigzag goldenrods, and the purple berries of the mapleleaf viburnum. The air is brisk and moist along Spot Pond Brook, the water spilling over a log making a quiet gurgling sound joined by the murmer of crickets, and soft buzzing of bumblebees, working their way through blue asters. Winter brings the first crunch of snow underfoot, white edging on the cracks in rock outcrops, and clear thin ice along the edges of the brook.

Heartleaf Aster

Heartleaf Aster

Some animal sightings are common, like frogs and snakes, while others are more fleeting. One morning I saw a flock of birds noisily chase a red-tail hawk up and down the brook, flying right overhead. Another time a mink slunk right by me running up a tree trunk to quickly cross a jumbled rock talus slope. Deer tracks in the mud of a vernal pool attested to where they ate the tops off of one of their favorite foods, the orange-flowered jewelweed.
It’s always hard to leave the forest and get back into my car to finish the morning commute to work, but I do so with a sense of satisfaction at the work accomplished, and with a serenity that will carry me through the day. I’m often reminded of where I was by finding a leaf in my hair, or burs on my clothes, which always brings a smile to my face. Over time these early morning walks have brought a deeper appreciation of the gift to us all that the Tudor family made in honor of their daughter Virginia.

This post was written by Bryan Hamlin and Walter Kittredge. Above: Indianhemp Dogbane – Apocynum cannabinum.

The Fells has a surprising diversity of plants for its size; so much so that in a nine year survey we found 868 species of ferns, conifers and flowering plants! In 2012 we (along with Betty Wright and Don Lubin) published the results in the botanical journal Rhodora (available on our Merchandise page) entitled “Changes in the vascular flora of the Middlesex Fells Reservation from 1895 to 2011”. We explained the high number of plants as due to the varied geology, topography and habitats in the Fells, but also to an increase in the number of non-native weeds and escaped garden plants. This steady arrival of non-native species will continue indefinitely. It is remarkable though that the number of native plants has remained constant for over a century, although the composition has changed somewhat as the forest has matured.

We’ve continued to survey and document the Fells flora, resulting in finding quite a few more species: 21 in 2012, then 17 in 2013, and now seven more this year. Most significantly twenty of these species are native to the area. There surely has to be a limit to this sort of thing.

Scientific names are always a little bit arcane, but this year’s crop of new finds has some fun common names.

[column size=half position=first ]Common Name

Cockspur Hawthorn*

Common Yellowcress

Indianhemp Dogbane*


Ridged Goosefoot

Sweet Autumn Clematis

Tumbleweed[/column] [column size=half position=last ]Scientific Name

Crataegus crus-galli

Rorippa palustris var. palustris

Apocynum cannabinum

Galinsoga parviflora

Dysphania pumilio

Clematis terniflora

Amaranthus blitoides[/column]

* Indicates a native species

Cockspur Hawthorn – Crataegus crus-galli

Cockspur Hawthorn – Crataegus crus-galli

The Indianhemp Dogbane (at top) was reported in the original survey of the Fells published in 1896, so it was great to finally re-find it. The Cockspur Hawthorn (above) is the third native species of Hawthorn in the Fells, which have become uncommon due to the fields growing back into forests. Our new findings are getting fewer and fewer each year. This may be because we’re getting older, or more likely that we’re getting closer to finding most things, although in over 3,000 acres it is well-nigh impossible to be sure of finding everything. But it’s that slim possibility of coming around a corner and finding a rarity that hasn’t been seen for 100 years that keeps us excited to continue exploring the wonderful flora of the Fells.

Without Bryan and Walter’s involvement with the Friends of the Fells, these long lost species would never have been rediscovered in the Fells. Right now, your contribution to the Friends will be tripled by a generous donor, helping us provide a new generation with the love of nature that drives Bryan and Walter.  Please consider making a contribution now.



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.